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INT’L WOMEN’S DAY-SOUTH AFRICA: A Fight Against Cultural Norms on Violence

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 8 2007 (IPS) - International Women’s Day, commemorated Thursday, is this year focused on bringing those who abuse women and girls to book. The theme is a pertinent one for South Africa, where the twin challenges of tackling domestic violence and ending impunity have topped the agenda of women’s groups for years.

“Domestic violence is widespread in South Africa,” said Sindiswa Ngcongco of the Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the commercial centre of Johannesburg that focuses on abuse of women and children.

“Culturally it has been regarded as the way a husband would discipline the wife. But it’s not only confined to husband and wife; it extends to family members.”

Ngcongco told IPS that her organisation dealt with an average of 15 cases of domestic violence daily.

“The victim comes to us for counseling…If she accepts taking legal action, the counselor assists her by writing a letter to the police. A date is set for the court hearing. All this is aimed at fighting domestic violence and ending impunity.”

Those who receive assistance from the Nisaa Institute are among the more fortunate abuse victims. Many other women lack access to information on how to deal with domestic violence.

“In (poor) communities it’s still a big problem. There’s still a lot more to do,” said Vanessa Padayachee, programme specialist at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders, based in the coastal city of Cape Town.

“We handle more than 30,000 victims, over 60 percent of which are domestic violence (victims), every year,” she noted in an interview with IPS. The targets of abuse have suffered a range of mistreatment, from the emotional and psychological, to economic and physical abuse.

Like counselors at the Nisaa Institute, Padayachee assists battered women with filing charges against their abusers.

Some women complain that police treat domestic violence as a family dispute, she said, adding: “It’s not a general trend in South Africa. But this does not mean that domestic violence has been eradicated.”

“Many police officers have transformed their mindsets on issues regarding domestic violence. Some haven’t. The challenge is changing the mindset of the society.”

The key thing, noted Ngcongco, was for those who experience abuse to keep coming forward. “Domestic violence deals more with attitude and behaviours. It’s something that happens behind closed door. If the victims don’t come out, nobody will know.”

In an effort to raise awareness of domestic abuse, the Nisaa Institute organises an average of three training sessions a month. “In many cases the women ask us to come to them,” she said. “Sometimes we hold the training together with the police.”

Concern about abuse occurs against a background of deep unease about crime generally, in South Africa.

Police statistics from last year show that 54,926 rapes – about 151 a day – were committed in 2005/2006. During the same period, some 18,528 murders took place. The figures for assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm totaled 226,942.

However, these statistics are disputed in certain instances.

Last year Rape Crisis, a Cape Town-based NGO, wrote an open letter to President Thabo Mbeki questioning the accuracy of statistics on rape: “…we fear that the (official) figures quoted are probably too low given the extremely narrow definition of rape,” it noted.

Amidst growing public pressure for more concerted action against crime, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel allocated an extra sum of approximately 334 million dollars in this year’s budget to expand the strength of the police force, and for investment in technology and forensic equipment.

Manuel also gave the Department of Justice some 209 million dollars in additional funds over the next three years “to improve court capacity, reduce case backlogs and modernise the administration of justice”.

“Our government recognises the seriousness of the crime situation and will continue to provide leadership in the fight against crime,” he noted.

“But, effective crime fighting depends on partnerships between our law enforcement agencies and communities. Through community police forums, all citizens have the opportunity to contribute towards making their communities safer. In this way, each person can help in the construction of a society where human life has equal worth.”

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