Gender Equality in South Africa: A reality or an Illusion 

Amori Marais (Research Psychologist / PsySSA’s Sexuality and Gender Division Co-Secretariat / NRF Intern, University of South Africa, Department of Psychology)

Regardless of the much needed progress and attention to gender equality within South Africa, the recent instances of gender-based and sexually motivated violence, prove that strides towards gender equality are not as momentous or meaningful as they ought to be. In recent months, the deaths of among others, Uyinene Mrwetayana, Leighandre Jegels and Janika Mallo, who were abused and brutally murdered by men, have sparked various movements across the nation. Among others the Am I Next and SA shutdown movements gained momentum in the wake of the frustrations of many South African women (and men), uniting against the perceived inaction displayed by the government (Nkanjeni, 2019). These anti-femicide movements reflect that women in the country fear for their safety and that abuse against women is a pervasive social problem that infiltrates the “social, public health, and human rights” sectors in our country (Boonzaier, 2008, p.183). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) (2012) femicide is defined as the intentional murder of women based on their gender, usually perpetrated by men. Perpetrators of femicide are usually current or former partners of women and actions leading up to femicide typically include: ongoing abuse; threats or intimidation; and/or sexual violence (WHO, 2012).

Gender-based violence against women, at the hands of men, continues to plague our country without the attention it deserves. This generally stems from gender-based crimes treated with impunity in most cases, and perpetrators generally not being held responsible for their actions. For example: it is estimated that annually, 500,000 rapes are committed in South Africa, and for every 25 men accused of rape, only one is convicted of a crime (Machisa et al., 2017). Nhlanhla Mokoena, the executive director of People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), a gender activist non-governmental organisation, once stated that the “law is on the side of perpetrators [of rape], rather than of the side of [rape] survivors” (“One in Four Men Rape”, 2009). A statement by Soraya Chemaly, a feminist activist and writer, reiterates the fear of women in our country based on the high prevalence of gender-based crimes and the ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system in preventing such crimes: “Ask a man what his greatest fear is about serving jail time, and he will almost inevitably say he fears being raped. What can we deduce from the fact that jail is to men what life is to women?” This leaves the burning question: who is responsible for mitigating the current crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa?

The South African government remains accountable for the management of crime and requires relevant policies, strategies and programmes to follow through on these accountabilities. In the 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Ramaphosa promised better functioning of the sexual offences courts and that government will strengthen national hotline centres that support women who experience gender-based violence (Republic of South Africa [RSA], 2019). In addition, men and boys will also be included as active champions in the struggles of gender-based violence (RSA, 2019). This aligns with the South African Medical Research Council’s (MRC), 2017 report where researchers identify the need to work specifically with boys to mobilise change in social norms and gender relations. South Africa is often characterised as having some of the most progressive legislation in the world, especially when it comes to prohibiting violence against women and children. However, while legislation on gender-based violence may be progressive, the laws fail to infiltrate the South African society at grassroots. For example: dominant power relations such as patriarchy and hetero-cis-normativity, perpetuate the cycles of violence and portray the inability of the law to significantly and qualitatively change dominant relations. This feeds notions such as harmful masculinity, where specific ideas around masculinity perpetuate the so-called “gender-hierarchies and sexual entitlement” of men (Machisa et al., 2017, p.17). This is based on men and women consistently applying stereotypical constructions of gender, where narratives centre around discourses of male domination and female submission (Boonzaier, 2005). The National Development Plan acknowledges that “gender-based violence in South Africa is unacceptably high” (RSA, 2012, p.395). This is even more alarming as a recent report by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) (2019), indicated that women make up the majority of the South African population (51,2%). Globally, South Africa has progressed and is now ranked 17th out of 136 countries in terms of gender equality (World Economic Forum, 2018). Regardless of this progression, the intense violence against women, as evident in recent months, and the gender pay gap remain areas of concern. Here are some facts that portray the realities of cis-gendered women in our country, and by deduction, the situation for transgender women will be much less determinable.

  • South Africa is the country with the 4th highest prevalence of female interpersonal violence, death rate.

During 2017/18, 15.2 out of every 100 000 South African women, were victims of murder (StatsSA, 2018). This corresponds with a 2016 report by the WHO, where South Africa is globally ranked as the country with the 4th highest prevalence of female interpersonal violence death rates. Additionally, the highest number of murders were committed by intimate partners (StatsSA, 2018), which reaffirms the WHO’s (2012) assertion that current or former partners are usually the perpetrators of femicide. This is specifically relevant in South Africa, as the patriarchal society where “standards of successful masculinity often involve the objectification of women”, regardless if the relationship is intimate or otherwise (Boonzaier, 2005, p.101).

  • Crimes against women have increased 2.4% between 2016/2017 – 2017/2018

The crimes against women include: murder; sexual offences; attempted murder; assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm and common assault (StatsSA, 2017). In 47.7% of cases, female victims were subjected to physical assault, and 35.5% to sexual violence, which collectively explain more than 80% of crimes against women. The 2017/18 Victims of Crime report (StatsSA, 2017), revealed that 250 in 100 000 South African women were victims of offences compared to 120 in 100 000 South African men. According to the report “these are drastic increases in less than 24 months” (p.38). From the report it is estimated that 68.5% of sexual offence victims were women; that is an estimate of 138 out of every 100 000. In the 2017 report released by the Gender and Health Unit at the MRC, they again identify patriarchy as one of the main contributors of violence against women. Based on these patriarchal notions, women start to internalise the violence perpetrated against them, which could possibly explain the beliefs in the next paragraph.

  • Almost as many South African women as men believe it is acceptable to hit a woman

It is typically assumed that gender inequality is only perpetuated by men but a recent report, Crime Against Women in South Africa (StatsSA, 2018), indicates otherwise. Accordingly, 3.3% of men and 2.3% of women believe that it is acceptable for a man to hit a woman. This portrays internalisations of the dominant power relations, not only by the perpetrators of gender-based violence, but also by the victims themselves. When asked about the circumstances that permit a husband to hit his wife, the so-called five “wrongs” were specified as: going out without telling him; neglecting children; arguing with him; refusing to have sex; or burning food (StatsSA, 2018, p.10). Evidently, there is a hierarchy to the seriousness of each of these “wrongs”. 10.4% of men and 9.4 % of women, who indicated that they don’t think it’s acceptable to hit a woman, think that in certain circumstances, a husband has the right to hit his wife. The report is available on the following link:

  • South Africa has the sixth largest pay gap between men and women in Africa

According to a report by the World Economic Forum (2018), in South Africa, men make on average $558 (R6‚607.25) more than women per month. The report also estimates that the current economic gap within South Africa, between men and women, won’t close for a projected 217 years. This reinforces the notion that while strides towards gender equality have been made, they have not yet infiltrated large areas of the South African society. Code for Africa has an online tool where users can explore the gender pay gap between men and women in Africa:

Evidently, while strides have been made to ensure a safer and more balanced South Africa for all, the above themes and statistics reveal that prevailing ideologies, like patriarchy and hetero-cis-normativity continue to dominate relevant laws and judicial structures that prevent violence against women, specifically. These ideologies are applied as justifications for violence against women and perpetuate a lack of gender equality within the South African society. Thus, internalisations of governing patriarchal beliefs remain a major challenge in fighting crime against women and ultimately achieving gender equality and a just, and safe society for people of all genders.



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Boonzaier, F. (2008). ‘If the man says you must sit, then you must sit’: The relational construction of woman abuse: gender, subjectivity and violence. Feminism & Psychology, 18(2): 183-206.

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