Written by Sushila Dhever in consultation with Nisaa Institute for Women's Development1

There is no doubt that gender inequality lies at the heart of most of the problems in our society. It is foundational to violence and abuse of women which is the focus of the 16 days of Activism. Numerous international and regional instruments2 have painstaking provisions directed at the elimination of gender-based inequality. Many countries subscribe to these instruments, covenants and protocols. Like constitutions, with high sounding phrases and great ideals, these instruments are written on paper and their observance and real impact traditionally depended on the will of governments, stakeholders, activists and a vigilant civil society. The ANC's parliamentary caucus has declared gender based violence a national disaster and there have been calls from some sectors, once again, for a referendum on the death penalty. Crime statistics for the 2018/2019 period indicate that: rape cases increased by 5.9%, with 424 cases reported, sexual offences increased by 6.3%, with 549 cases reported, sexual offences cases rose by 10.3%, with 118 cases reported, and attempted sexual assault cases rose by 15.2%, with 31 cases reported.3

This begs the question: Is 16 Days of Activism impactful in the reduction and possible eradication of violence against vulnerable groups? Is stand-alone advocacy only by civil society enough to promote and protect the rights of women, children, asylum seekers and the LGBTIQA+ community (vulnerable groups) in South Africa? Is the kind of advocacy we are engaging in appropriate to combat violence in our society?

This article offers three opinions on Activism in response to the questions proposed above: 1) Our notion of Activism should be broadened to be effective 2) Private sector engagement in Activism should be encouraged and nurtured and 3) Activism methods need to be re-evaluated and possibly changed to remain relevant and transformative.

Our Notion of Activism should be broadened to be effective

Our advocacy needs to include non-gender specific education and initiatives. Most Activism initiatives traditionally focus on women and the girl child. Very little is done to educate boys and men. A recent initiative by Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola "Under The Tree Dialogues at the Kgosi Mampuru prison" speaks to non-gender specific activism. Under The Tree Dialogues were launched to start solution-based conversations with various participants, particularly The Department Justice and Correctional Services, men in society, inmates and specialists in various fields and society at large. The dialogues are aimed at bringing about behavioural change in men and repelling patriarchal attitudes aimed at women and girls by men and boys.

The South African government, at the highest policy-making levels, has expressed a commitment to addressing forms of violence against women (only) despite the fact that violence is widespread and not always gender specific, the reality is that many people are left with no redress and are at the mercy of the criminal justice system. Non gendered-advocacy around violence is required given that violence in the country is wide spread and not only against women.

Advocacy on its own will not eradicate violence. In addition to advocacy, we need to provide access to courts and pro bono legal representation to survivors. Violence against women, asylum seekers and the LGBTIQA+ community, (just one ugly manifestation of this inequality) poses a serious obstacle to the full enjoyment of their other basic rights.

Survivors of violence continue to face a judicial and police system that routinely denies them redress. Women, regardless of race, foreigners and the LGBTIQA+ community complain of indifferent or hostile treatment from the criminal justice system. Police are frequently ignorant of the laws protecting them from violence. Sentencing patterns and condemnations meted to perpetrators of violence is left to the discretion of the presiding judge resulting in extremes in sentencing patterns. Often the cultural, traditional or religious justifications advanced are upheld thus condoning these violations. Therefore, non- gender specific advocacy needs to be coupled with initiatives that promote legal education and enforcement.

Private sector engagement in Activism should be encouraged and nurtured

Our Courts in South Africa have recognized the impact of inequality in our society. We have acknowledged that because of our past, ours is a glaringly unequal society. Economic, social and legal inequalities persist. Women, asylum seekers and the LGBTIQA+ community are subject to widespread violence that prevents them from enjoying the other rights and privileges that they are ensured of by the constitution.

Both domestic violence and sexual assault are pervasive in South Africa and are directed almost exclusively against these groups, often in places in which they should be safe and by people that they know and should be able to rely on.

Therefore, the work of nongovernmental organizations remains crucial in the advancement of the rights of vulnerable groups who are unable to procure the services of private lawyers to assist them. These groups are also overwhelmed by their experience of abuse and the secondary victimization that they are subjected to by the police, prosecutors and magistrates. The LGBTIQA+ community is particularly affected because of bias and discrimination amongst officials. By providing free legal services and legal advice vulnerable groups are given the opportunity to vindicate their rights in a court of law. The private sector needs to be engaged to fund or provide free legal services to vulnerable groups.

Although government has enacted various pieces of legislation to assist women, the difficulty lies in implementation. Nothing is really done for male survivors of abuse. Predominantly nongovernmental organizations lobby for implementation and provide access to justice to these vulnerable groups. Human resource constraints, financial constraints, illiteracy and poverty remain challenges to many nongovernmental organizations striving to assist people access justice. Given recent funding cut backs to non-governmental organisations the demand supersedes the supply. It is here that the Private sector should be engaged. Fasken provides pro bono legal services to survivors of abuse in partnership with social workers at Nisaa who offer psycho-social support to clients navigating the legal process and court system. This innovative way of rendering (holistic) pro bono legal services has resulted in more domestic violence matters being prosecuted and more successful protection orders being obtained and enforced.

Creating Corporate Cultures in the private sector that promote human rights is paramount. Corporate Social Investment (CSI) spend should be effectively used on initiatives that support non-gender specific legal education, legal enforcement in conjunction with traditional notions of advocacy. NISAA trains abused women and shelters them so that they are able to be gainfully employed and leave abusive situations. The cycle of violence cannot be alone treated: the lack of housing, unemployment and drug abuse also contribute to the violence in our Society. CSI spend should be allocated to programs that seek to rehabilitate survivors of violence so that they do not return to abusive relationships because of unemployment of homelessness. Programs like these coupled with advocacy remain crucial in eradicating violence.

Activism methods need to be re-evaluated and possibly changed to remain relevant and transformative

Law reform, education, training and partnering with similarly minded nongovernmental organizations is traditionally how activists have advocated for change. Recent activism included extensive use of social media and TV advertisements. Much noise was made about harsher sentences which are symbolic but not deterrents to violence. Public outcries due to media reports that focus on sensational cases result in everyday cases being ignored due to campaigns being often short lived during 16 Days of activism. Little resources are spent on services that actually focus on stopping the cycle of violence. Resources should be pooled by government and the private sector on holistic domestic violence programs that focus on family units and also address the violence that men and boys experience which is later perpetuated.

Advocacy should be focused on changing the gender-based stereotyped messages like: "if a person dresses inappropriately they asked to be raped." Also narratives that the girl child is taught about violence needs to be re-examined and advocacy should be focusing on changing these archaic narratives which typically involve girls and women being told not to dress with short skirts or drink out late in bars while the same narrative is not told to the boy child or men. There should be advocacy around how we teach or package gender based messages to our children and also our employees in corporate settings. More activism should be geared around prevention through initiatives that seek to change behaviour and mind sets of individuals and society. With the increased use of technology to perpetuate violent crimes more advocacy and education needs to be done in the tech space and more progressive/ tech savvy activism is required to appeal to our younger more tech savvy generation.


I reiterate for impactful Activism in the reduction and possible eradication of violence against vulnerable groups: Our notion of Activism should be broadened to be effective 2) Private sector engagement in Activism should be encouraged and nurtured and 3) Activism methods need to be re-evaluated and possibly changed to remain relevant and transformative. As we deal with the legacy of illiteracy, joblessness, poverty and the rejuvenation of a better moral fabric in society, our attitude to human rights issues must also improve and we need something more than just 16 days of Activism.


1. Fasken runs a Pro Bono Legal Clinic for Survivors of Domestic Violence in Partnership with Nisaa Institute for Women's Development in Lenasia. The clinic services Lenasia, Soweto, Orange Farm and surrounding areas.

2. A comprehensive mention of these is to be found in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003/).

3. "Madonsela speaks out against gender-based violence as number soar"/ News/ 16 September 2019, 7:00am/ Karen Singh, Mayibongwe Maqhina.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.