In his most recent address to the country on the Covid-19 situation, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has spoken about easing the restrictions imposed on the country since March 27. But he took his audience by surprise when he deviated from his usual format to speak strongly – even with some passion – about the terrible increase of killings and abuse of women and children that has characterised the period of restrictions imposed to curb the Coronavirus.
President Cyril Ramaphosa currently chairs the African Union, and in that capacity he used his address of June 17 to speak about the supply of testing kits, personal protection and other resources needed by all African countries.
Like many states, SA had been affected by the global shortage of coronavirus test kits and other materials. He said it was therefore essential to target tests more carefully, ‘prioritising patients in hospitals, health care workers, vulnerable people like the elderly, and hotspot areas.’
Among the initiatives being followed in collaboration with other African countries was the ‘ground-breaking Africa Medical Supplies Portal’. He explained: ‘This is a single continental market places where African countries can access critical medical supplies, such as test kits, from suppliers and manufacturers in Africa and around the world in the necessary quantities and at competitive prices.’
He said the portal would complement the work being done to ensure that the continent had ‘the medical equipment, personal protective equipment and hospital facilities to manage the anticipated increase in Covid-19 patients.’
But though this was important, he had something far more dramatic to say. It concerned gender-based violence (GBV), a problem that rages in almost every country of the world, but from which SA is suffering particularly at the moment.
‘It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of SA this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country.’
‘As a man, as a husband and as a father, I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country.’
He said violence was being unleashed on woman and children during a time when everyone was feeling vulnerable and uncertain, and that this violence was characterized by ‘a brutality that defies comprehension’.
‘These rapists and killers walk among us. They are in our communities.
‘They are our fathers, our brothers, our sons and our friends; violent men with utterly no regard for the sanctity of human life.’
He recalled that over the previous few weeks 21 women and children had been murdered. Police had done excellent work and had arrested almost all of the alleged perpetrators in these cases.
An emergency response plan had been formulated to combat GBV and femicide and R1.6 billion in government funding would be made available to support the implementation of this plan. During lockdown government had ensured that survivors of GBV had access to support and services, including the GBV hotline, shelters and centres that providing support.
Since December 2019, some 10 government-owned buildings had been handed over to the Department of Social Development for shelters. Thirteen regional courts had been upgraded into specialised sexual offences courts. To support the work of law enforcement, 7 000 evidence collection kits had been distributed regularly to every police station in the country and there were now more than 1 000 survivor-friendly rooms at police stations.
‘Many police, prosecutors, magistrates and policymakers have undergone sensitivity and awareness training and over 3 000 government employees who work with children and mentally disabled persons have been checked against the National Register of Sex Offenders.’
Changes to the law had been prepared, to reflect, among other things, ‘sentencing in cases of gender-based violence, bail conditions for suspects and greater protection for women who are victims of intimate partner violence’, and Ramaphosa urged that lawmakers in Parliament should process these amendments as quickly as possible.
‘Our courts have been firm in dealing with cases of gender-based violence even during the lockdown period, handing down life sentences and multiple life sentences to perpetrators.
‘I want to assure the women and children of SA that our criminal justice system will remain focused on gender-based violence cases and that we can expect more arrests and more prosecutions of perpetrators’.
Those who carried out violence against women and children ‘must receive sentences that fit the horrific crimes they commit.’
He said he was disturbed by the increase in abuse as the lockdown eased and particularly once alcohol had become available again and promised investigations into the links between alcohol and GBV.
‘These perpetrators are known to us and our communities. By looking away, by discouraging victims from laying charges, by shaming women for their lifestyle choices or their style of dress, we become complicity in these crimes.’ Ramaphosa called on a those listening to ‘consider the consequences of their silence.’ And he concluded by conceding that the country found itself ‘in the midst of not one, but two, devastating epidemics’ – the Coronavirus pandemic and an epidemic of GBV