South Africa: Violence against Women and ICT

4 November 2009

By Shereen Essof

The South African Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. South Africa's government has committed itself to eradicating violence against women (VAW). It has ratified the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW and passed a number of pieces of legislation that attempt to tackle the issue of VAW. But for many women, violence has become a part of everyday life and threatens to erode legal and political gains. Statistics show that 8.8 per 100,000 women 14 years and older are killed. A woman is killed every six hours in South Africa – the highest rate yet reported by research anywhere in the world. The rape homicide rate is 3.65 per 100,000 women 14 years and older. Domestic violence affects one in two women in some parts of South Africa. One in nine women raped report the attack to the police. Civil society organisations provide shelters, intervention services, legal assistance and rape crisis centres and are implementing a growing number of social services. Some are using ICTs in their work to combat VAW.

ICT statistics reveal that 10.5% of the population access the internet, of which 51% are women but this is limited to the wealthy. Eighty percent of the population own mobile phones, almost half being women. ICT policies take a gender-neutral approach so benefits accrue to men. Technology is developing faster than South African society can fully comprehend its uses and implications. There is little understanding of the strategic use of ICTs to support combating VAW as well as recognition of new avenues for perpetrating violence against women.

ICT-related VAW legislation

The Domestic Violence Act 1998 recognizes stalking and harassment through telephone calls and electronic mail. The Sexual Offences Amendment Act 2007 includes display of child pornography and creation of child pornography as an offence. The act makes interim provisions relating to combating trafficking in persons for sexual purposes. The Protection From Harassment Bill 2009 defines harassment as directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that causes harm and includes, following, pursuing or accosting verbally or electronically. The Children’s Act 2005, Children’s Amendment Act 2007 provide provision to combat child pornography. South Africa's National Policy Framework for Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality makes a commitment to redress inequities in the ICT sector and support women’s participation.

Concerns

Censorship vs. freedom of expression: Technically pornography is permissible as the Constitution states that every person has the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, other media and to freedom of artistic creativity. It also states that everyone has inherent dignity and protection against anything that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

Privacy vs. surveillance: The right to privacy of communication is a fundamental right protected in the constitution but other acts seek to ensure that all electronic communications infrastructure of organs of state are protected and secure. This resides in quiet tension with the Access to Information Act to guarantee transparency for citizens.

Recommendations

For government: Harmonise and implement ICT policy with a strong gender perspective and allow for redress and transparency; put in place gender monitoring mechanisms to monitor regulations; ensure government has genuine multi-stakeholder consultations including gender and ICT experts.

For civil society: Develop collective strategies for policy and practice; action between civil society and Commission on Gender Equality (CGE); educate policy makers, police and service providers on VAW and ICT; suggest relevant legislation to combat this; lobbying for sex disaggregated statistics and indicators; development of strategic content which is locally relevant and helps with women’s immediate survival needs and communication rights.

For the Association for Progressive Communications Women's Networking Support Programme: Awareness-raising on the importance of ICTs and the potential harm to women and strategic use of ICTs for anti-VAW organizations; skills transfer workshops and training sessions for key practitioners and social justice activists in the use of ICTs.

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