Female State of the Nation: Part 4: Crime and Human Rights

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 ‘Where are We’, Part 2 ‘Women and the Economy‘, Part 3: ‘Energy and the Environment

As South Africans it seems that it is impossible to go a day without seeing a news headline of a violent attack in some form. Between 2006 and 2013, more than one million crimes were committed against women. Common assault was the most common contact crime, followed by assault with the intent to commit grievous bodily harm. The Table below provides a breakdown of the SAPS statistics.

But before you get there, statistics of this scale are often hard to process. It’s difficult to imagine what more they represent. So when you see these numbers, I want you to think of the images you know of the 1956 women’s march that changed our history. In that march, there were roughly 20 000 women.

Crimes against women 2006 – 2013[1]

Year Murder Sexual Offences Serious assault (assault GBH) Common assault Total
2006/7 2 602 34 816 69 132 100 390 206 940
2007/8 2 544 31 328 64 084 94 286 192 242
2008/9 2 436 30 124 61 509 91 390 185 459
2009/10 2 457 36 093 62 143 94 176 194 869
2010/11 2 594 35 820 60 630 89 956 189 000
2011/12 2 286 31 299 57 345 87 191 178 121
2012/13 2 266 29 928 55 320 83 394 170 908
Total for crime category 2006 – 2013 17 185 229 408 430 163 640 783 1 317 539

It’s unfortunate that the crime statistics are not reported in a gender-disaggregated way each year that would allow us to track what types of crimes women are reporting. In 2012/13 however, the SAPS did report in this way, as detailed in the table above. In that year, adult females were more likely than adult males and children to be the victim of sexual offences and common assault. In terms of the total number of crimes, sexual offences against adult females represented 45 percent of all sexual offences, and common assault against adult females represented 48 percent of all common assaults.

So it’s clear that women are more likely to report certain types of crimes – namely sexual offences and common assaults. It’s possible to conclude that these common assaults represent some of the domestic violence statistics which, although tracked daily by the SAPS, have never been reported on.

It is important therefore for those listening to SONA to consider what commitments have been made to women in terms of protecting them from crime both outside and within the home. In the 2014 SONA the only commitment made was that the Government would ‘work to reduce levels of crime’. Following the deaths of Anene Booysen, Anni Dewani, and Reeva Steenkamp, a great deal of noise was made by many Government representatives from all parties about the need to address crimes against women. But now that noise has become an almost inaudible murmur.

Two years ago the Government via the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities launched the National Council on Gender Based Violence (NCGBV). This council was formed to address and monitor high levels of violence against women, as well as to consider strategies to prevent further violence. During 2014, after finalising its identity, the Council seemed to disappear. Another commitment made was the development of new sexual offences courts and the refurbishment of existing courts to become sexual offences courts. This is another development which seems to have disappeared from the agenda. There is also an inter-ministerial committee on violence against women. Yet, the relevant departments are not working together to improve the lives of survivors in a way that is evident, efficient or speedy enough. If these commitments are not discussed tonight, why not? If there is not sufficient budget for these important services, where is that money being redirected to?

Of course, as I explained in Part 1 a useful term to understand is intersectionality. That is, the intersection of various forms of oppression on different people. With crime and violence, it is true that certain categories of women are more vulnerable.

Sex workers currently face a number of human rights violations because of the criminalisation of the sale of sex in South Africa. These have been well documented by organisations like the Women’s Legal Centre and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Excellent arguments exist for decriminalising sex work, and ensuring that sex workers are able to perform their work without fear of violence from police, and from perpetrators.

Violence against Lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women is also prevalent, and there has unfortunately been a move away from South Africa’s active championship of LGBTI rights on the continent. The National Task Team on Hate Crimes was formed in 2011, and since then the Department of Justice has made several commitments to introduce new legislation to support LGBTI victims of violence. However, four years later this has not happened. This failure to amend existing legislation to enhance sentences for hate crimes, or to introduce new legislation that will effectively allow for the tracking of these incidents and the prevention thereof, is an indication of a lack of political will to really support the right to be free from discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation. South Africa’s failure to criticise other African states for ‘anti-gay’ laws indicates that we have moved back from the leadership role on these issues. In 2014, a transgender woman undertook a hunger strike after Home Affairs repeatedly failed to assist her in changing the sex status on her ID document.

This is not the time to be inactive or complacent about violence against women. There is a need to identify this as a core issue in tonight’s SONA, and if not, to question how the problem will be addressed in the 2015/16 period.



[1] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 770.


Female State of the Nation: Part 3: Energy and the Environment

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 – ‘Where are we’ here, and Part 2 ‘Women and the economy’ here

It seems important that I’m sitting in my living room in the dark during load-shedding trying to finish this portion of the SONA analysis on the environment and energy. It couldn’t be much clearer to me that the decisions that the State makes about how we produce and distribute our energy impact on women, particularly those that are already facing other challenges such as poverty.

What does it mean for women when the lights go out, or to have never been connected to electricity in the first place?

In public, it means dark streets, intersections, public transport routes, and footpaths. Any woman reading this does not need any further detail about the sense that this darkness is inherently dangerous, and limits women’s ability to enjoy their Constitutional right to move freely, and to be free from violence. Part four of this series will deal with crime and human rights, and so I will not belabor the point further in this section.

As noted earlier in this series of posts, the NDP makes clear that access to basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” As already discussed in the section on women and the economy, women’s economic empowerment is critical to the development and well being of the entire family.

Across South Africa, around a third of households do not have access to electricity. When there is load shedding or no electricity, households must use alternative energy sources to prepare food and heat water. As of 2011, according to the census, only 26 percent of households in informal settlements used electricity as their main form of energy for heating, 39 percent used electricity for cooking, and 43 percent used electricity for lighting. In 2011, 57 percent of all households classified as “informal dwellings” (shacks not in backyards) had no access to electricity at all.

According to the 2010 survey of time use, women were twice as likely as men to spend time on food preparation and where electricity is not available, this is likely to take much longer, placing further domestic strain on women. In addition, a Housing Development Agency Report noted that female-headed households in informal settlements are more likely to be overcrowded and house skip generation families, as well as non-family residents, creating an even more extensive burden on these women.

There are multiple risks of using these alternative sources of energy to cook and heat the home. A 2009 World Health Organisation bulletin noted that because paraffin is highly flammable, this can lead to fires either from malfunctioning appliances, placing appliances too close to curtains, or accidents. In addition, the use of paraffin in wooden or cardboard structures, as well as in population dense areas means the risk of fire is further escalated

The energy crisis in South Africa is at the forefront of many of our minds because of the inability to flick a switch and turn on a light. What may seem a more distant issue is the impact of our energy decisions on women in the long term. I think it’s important then to explore what climate change means for women, and how South Africa’s current energy decisions are likely to increase our contribution to climate change and are already affecting the health of many South Africans.

It is well documented that in times of environmental crisis women are often hardest hit. This has been recognized by women’s organisations and institutions for many years: Women and the Environment was one of the 12 areas of critical concern acknowledged in the Beijing Platform for Action developed in 1995. The document states that:

“Awareness of resource depletion, the degradation of natural systems and the dangers of polluting substances has increased markedly in the past decade. These worsening conditions are destroying fragile ecosystems and displacing communities, especially women, from productive activities and are an increasing threat to a safe and healthy environment.”

In South African policy this has also been acknowledged. The NDP notes that climate change will have a negative effect on the health of communities, and that this will disproportionately impact women and children.[1]

It was positive that the 2014 State of the Nation speech called for

” a radical transformation of the energy sector, to develop a sustainable energy mix that comprises coal, solar, wind, hydro, gas and nuclear energy.”

And yet, simultaneously there continued to be investment in coal power at the expense of our renewable electricity infrastructure, and at the expense of the health and livelihoods of many South Africans, many of whom are women.

The impact of these decisions on the health of the population is not something that will only happen in the future. It is already happening. The environmental impact is not only a long term, but current. Witbank in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air. In The Poisoned People Greenpeace Africa details the stories of the people who live around coal mines, many of whom who are already suffering from respiratory problems as well as other health conditions.

There continues to be this push for coal despite the fact that it already results in hundreds of deaths per year as a result of air pollution, and this could increase when (if) Medupi comes online. This could be as high a figure as 20 000 premature deaths. Eskom has consistently exceeded air quality limits on pollution, and yet in 2014 applied for the right not to comply with Minimum Emission Standards. There continues to be this push for coal despite it becoming a massive financial burden for the State, and it being well over budget. Eskom continues to get State bail outs that could be invested in renewable energy which is labour intensive, will reduce South Africa’s contribution to climate change, and will not have the same devastating health impact that coal is having. It is important then, to listen to SONA tomorrow to consider whether

The decision to continue to invest in environmentally damaging energy production methods such as fracking, rather than redirect investment towards greener energy will impact on women. Other than the aesthetic destruction of environments, fracking is an incredibly water intense activity. Even if the well-documented risks of groundwater pollution do not happen in South Africa, we are a water scarce country. Where water is not readily available, or in times of drought, again the impact on women’s domestic responsibilities is significant.

In addition, around 16 000 women are involved in the formal agricultural sector[i], and many more are involved in informal agriculture in order to meet the food security needs of their families. Women already face additional obstacles to becoming involved in agriculture (such as access to technology and finance), and climate change will only heighten these challenges. Thus, a drought or an impact on the ground water because of pollution will have a profound impact on women in terms of job losses, and food insecurity. This is already happening in countries bordering and near to South Africa.

Our future energy decisions, proposed and discussed in the State of the Nation, will continue have a profound impact on women. As you listen to the speech tomorrow, consider how the decisions about energy and the environment could impact on women.

If women are not mentioned at all in this regard, as has frequently been the case, it is likely that their interests will not be considered. It is clear that any further decisions about our energy future should be made only with specific consultation with women’s interest groups, in order to ensure that our energy and environmental policies are gender-sensitive, and in line with the Constitution which provides every South African with the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and to have it protected for future generations to come.

[1] NDP

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 252, 253


Female State of the Nation Part 2: The Economy and Women

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

Read Part 1 here.

State of the Nation Speeches often begin with a discussion of the economic situation. So that is where Part 2 of this series will enter the discussion.

Women make up the majority of the unemployed across all age categories, but particularly amongst the youth.[1] What is interesting about this figure is that whilst unemployment in general has grown, and simultaneous the number of employed people has grown (as the population grows, this happens), the percentage gap between the number of employed males and females has remained the same.[2] Essentially, what this statistic tells us is that there continue to be barriers for women entering the job market, and these barriers affect men less than they do women.

These barriers are complex and differ for women from different backgrounds. Whilst the official SONA is likely to refer to the infamous triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, for women there are often more than three factors affecting their ability to find employment, and to remain employed. Academics use the term ‘intersectionality’ to explain how different forms of oppression intersect to create different lived experiences for women, and I think this is a useful term to use here.

The NDP itself notes that patriarchal attitudes remain a barrier for many women. In the old days this might be reflected in a saying like ‘why hire a woman to do a man’s job’. Currently, economic chauvinists are required to keep these opinions to themselves. However, there remain sectors of the South African economy where women are the minority, and often women encounter a glass ceiling to their progress. Most women who were employed in 2013 were involved in trade or in community and social services (including government).[3] As of 2012, only 3.6 percent of Chief Executive Officers were women and 5.5 percent of Chairpersons were women.[4]

Patriarchal attitudes also reinforce stereotypical gender roles meaning that women remain responsible for the majority of household work, even when they are employed.[5] The annual average income figures indicate an even more significant gap between men and women. When the 2001 and 2011 annual income figures of men and women are compared, it is clear that the annual average income of a female in 2011 remains only slightly higher than the annual average income of a male was in 2001.[6]

The NDP also recognises that the provision of basic services to women improves their ability to be healthy and supported workers. The NDP notes that basic services and human rights such as safe drinking water, electricity, and quality childhood education could “free women from doing unpaid work and help them seek jobs.” I would further suggest that the development of better transportation infrastructure that is safe, well-lit, and regular would mean that women would not have to brave violence in public on their way to and from work. In addition, I strongly suggest the consideration of equitable paternity and maternity leave so that the gendered division of child care is reduced, allowing new mothers and fathers to raise children together, and support one another during their careers.

We can all agree that unemployment is a bad situation for everyone and that solutions are necessary for both men and women, so why should we care specifically about unemployed women? For a number of reasons. Evidence suggests that around 38 percent of households in South Africa are headed by a single mother.[7] The education of women also affects women in the future – educated mothers are more likely to have healthier babies, and their own children are more likely to attend school.[8] Women’s education and resultant economic empowerment not only affects women, it profoundly changes the gendered functioning of the economy and society.

Furthermore, ensuring that women have access to their own income can mean the difference between leaving a violent relationship and staying. In a response to a 2013 Parliamentary Question, the Department of Justice reported that around 50 percent of women who dropped their domestic violence case did so because they were financially dependent on their abusive partner. Where patriarchal norms remain the norm, and where violence is readily used by many partners to ensure women are ‘put in their place’, the decision of the state to ignore the feminisation of poverty will mean that they relegate women to remain punching bags for the crisis of masculinity.

So women’s economic empowerment is essential to the development of democracy, and to a more equal situation for many people in the country. This is certainly something the Government has recognized, given the fact that the Department of Women in the Presidency has shifted its focus exclusively to this topic as announced in the 2014 State of the Nation Address. Whilst it is positive that more emphasis will be put on this element of women’s lives, it is certainly not the only topic that requires the attention of the Department, and the assumption that other Departments are mainstreaming women’s issues is problematic. In addition, it is not clear that any real progress in this regard has been made by the new Department from a casual observation of the Department’s work since May 2014. In the 2015 SONA it will be important to consider how women’s issues are being dealt with by other departments, and if they are not mentioned, whether any action will happen on them at all.


[1] Statistics SA (2014a). National and Provincial labour market: Youth. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[2] Statistics South Africa (2014b). Gender Series Volume 1: Economic Empowerment 2001 – 2014. Pretoria, Statistics South Africa.

[3] South African of Race Relations (2013). South Africa Survey. Page 240.

[4] Businesswomen Association of South Africa (2012). Women in Leadership Survey.

[5] The 2011 household survey.

[6] Statistics South Africa (2012). Census.

[7] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013) Page 660.

[8] UNICEF (2014) The State of the World’s Children 2014


Female State of the Nation: Part 1: Where are we?

Jen Thorpe, feminism, South Africa, feminist
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

This State of the Nation is one that asks you, for a few moments, to consider to some information about the majority of South Africans. Some information about the biggest population group that is not a racial or religious group. This State of the Nation asks ‘what is the problem’ and ‘what can we do next’. This State of the Nation is about women.

If, at this point, you are not convinced that women make up a significant constituency, let me present you with some very simple facts. Women made up 51.3 percent of the population at the time of the 2011 census that was some 27 million females across the country. At that time 55 percent of females in South Africa were under the age of 29 years. African women make up the vast majority of women in South Africa, with 21 676 341 recorded in the 2011 census.[1]

So when you think about what the President says tomorrow, you need to be asking yourself, what does this mean for women? Have the decisions about budget, and planning considered the needs of this group? How are women being included or excluded?

It is typical to begin speeches like SONA by acknowledging whereabouts in our democratic process we are. I think this context is important not only to reflect how far we’ve come but to remind ourselves to ask where we are going, and whether we are taking steps forward or backwards.

On 11 February we celebrate 25 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from Prison. Nelson Mandela once said

“freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”

This remains true today.

In 2014 we celebrated the 20th year since our first democratic election, in addition, with the elections in May last year, we ushered in the 5th democratic government. In 2016 we will celebrate local government elections, as well as 20 years since the Constitution was drafted.

The South Africa Constitution forms the foundation for the many pieces of positive and empowering legislation that have emerged both to actively promote women’s rights, and to protect women from those who wish to infringe on them. It is celebrated around the world as a law that is progressive, and prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender and sex. Without this powerful and brave commitment it is almost certain that the lives of all women in South Africa would be worse.

The Constitution also establishes the critical Chapter 9 institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. These institutions, once empowered oversight bodies with the power to recommend changes in the various spheres of government have, sadly, in the recent past have begun to be hamstrung by a political culture that sees criticism as an attack, rather than as something which helps inspire growth and improvement, and has failed to act on the recommendations of these bodies, and failed to allocate them sufficient funding to perform the massive tasks they are required to. Institutions supporting democracy are not add-ons, but part of the very core work of building the country that was envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution, and all those who worked to end apartheid.

2015 is also the year that the Millennium Development Goals targeted as their year of completion. Goal 3 relates to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. South Africa’s performance in the goals that relate to women has varied. We have met the goal of achieving universal primary education (Goal 2), but lack information on the attendance ratio and survival rates of girls. The second indicator for this goal is the share of women in wage employment, outside of the agricultural sector. In South Africa, women outnumber men in the occupations of clerks, technicians, and domestic work. In all other fields men outnumber women. Thus, the share of women outside of the agricultural sector remains lower than the target.[2] The third indicator for this goal is the proportion of seats held by women in National Parliament. As of the 1 May 2014, South Africa was ranked 5th in the world in terms of gender representation at a Parliamentary level.[3] However, it is worth noting that the number of women in the National Assembly has decreased since the 2009 – 2014 administration (the number of women in the National Council of Provinces has increased slightly).[4] In addition, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are both women.

Millennium Development Goal 5 was to improve maternal health for women with two primary goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent and achieving universal access to reproductive health care. In fact, between 1990 and 2015 South Africa’s maternal mortality ratio has only decreased slightly, with the Department of Health estimating that 176 women die per 100 000 live births.[5] Of serious concern is that most of these deaths are determined to have been preventable by the Department of health.[6] In terms of achieving universal access to reproductive health this is often measured by contraceptive prevalence and adolescent birth rate, among other indicators. Both of these measures do not paint a good picture for the achievement of these goals, with couple year protection rates around 31.4 percent in 2009.[7] Between 2001 and 2011 the adolescent birth rate declined by a mere 1.7 percent, and a total of 113 240 babies were born to mothers between 15 and 19 years old in 2011. [8]In terms of successes, the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel has increased[9] though this does still vary between rural and urban areas.[10] Since 2003, great improvement in the coverage of antenatal care has been made.[11] By 2005, 97 percent of all women across South Africa accessed antenatal care when pregnant.[12] By 2011 this figure was 100.6 percent and thus South Africa met the target of at least one antenatal visit.[13] The percentage in excess of 100 percent reflects non-South Africans using antenatal care services.

Although we have made progress, we will not meet all Millennium Development Goals that will improve women’s lives. It will be important then to consider the State of the Nation in terms of the Post-2015 agenda, and how South Africa as a country will ensure that these goals are met, sooner rather than later.

The National Development Plan (NDP), South Africa’s blueprint for how things will look fifteen years from now, makes commitments to women’s rights in a number of sections. One of the six priorities of the Plan is to reunite South Africans around common values, especially those of the Constitution. It recognizes the progress women have made, whilst also acknowledging that patriarchal attitudes continue to stymie their progress.

The NDP makes a number of recommendations to address this persistent inequality[14], including the transformation of the economy, the celebration of women leaders; addressing social, cultural, religious and educational barriers to women entering the job market; making South Africa safer, ensuring security of tenure for female farmers; improving the health of pregnant women; improving the coverage of antiretroviral treatment to all HIV-positive people, and offering microbicides to all women 16 years and older. These are not small tasks, and the NDP allocates them to the Department of Women and to the Commission for Gender Equality. I will return to a critique of the Department of Women later, but what is important in considering these commitments is that as you listen to the State of the Nation tomorrow, you listen out to hear whether any of these commitments are mentioned, or any plans to support them are introduced.

The broad commitments made by the NDP have, for the next five years, been refined in the Medium Term Strategic Framework 2014 – 2019, the MTSF. In terms of Outcome 14, by the 2015/16 policies aimed making families better able to foster values such as tolerance, diversity, non-racialism, non-sexism and equity via the development of a draft strategy to strengthen the family should be drafted.

The truth is that despite the beautiful laws we have on paper, the policy commitments that originate from Government, and the fact that things have improved since democracy came into effect, twenty years in, many women are feeling short changed. Many women are feeling afraid. Many women are feeling angry. As I continue now, I would like to say that I think all of these feelings are legitimate.

This State of the Nation will take a number of parts, the next one being the State of the female economy. I hope that you read them all, and use them to consider whether it is sufficient to exclude women any longer.


[1] Statistics South Africa (2013). Census.

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations 2013. South Africa Survey. Page 252, 253

[3] The Inter-Parliamentary Union (2014).

[4] Levendale, C (2014).

[5] Department of Health (2012).

[6] The World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, UNFPA, The World Bank, and United Nations Population Division (2013)

[7] Ibid.

[8] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 47.

[9] The National Coordinating Committee for the Millennium Development Goals (2013).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] NDP Overview, page 43.

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