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Wed Nov 26 09:40:10 SAST 2014

Gender violence disappears in the stats

Chandre Gould | 11 September, 2011 10:06

Crime statistics tell us nothing about domestic violence, hate crimes, and human trafficking, writes Chandre Gould.

While we celebrate the significant reduction of many types of crime in South Africa, it is worth asking what this means, if anything, for gender-based violence.

Every year, public attention focuses on crimes that grab the headlines, yet there are significant crimes that don't feature in the annual police statistics.

Since nearly eight males are murdered in South Africa for every female murder victim, a reduction in the murder rate doesn't tell us much about whether women are any safer now than they were a year ago.

The crime statistics, for example, tell us nothing about levels of domestic violence, hate crimes and human trafficking. These crimes are inherently harmful to society.

They reflect societal prejudice and discrimination against women and other vulnerable groups that are so deeply entrenched that superficial efforts to promote gender equality and tolerance for difference have little chance of success.

These are also crimes which we cannot rely solely on the police to prevent. This is not due to any shortcomings by the police, but because the police can do little to address the causes of prejudice, misogyny and dysfunctional relationships that give rise to gender-based violence.

The question remains: why do the annual police statistics not include these crimes? And why should they?

Let us start with domestic violence, the most pernicious and likely the most prevalent of so-called "invisible crimes".

Domestic violence doesn't only cause long-term suffering for the direct victims. Research shows that children who are exposed to domestic violence have a greater chance of behaving violently themselves later in life. It can affect their ability to learn at school and can lead to depression and even suicide.

But those bland facts cannot begin to reflect the real fear, anger, frustration, helplessness and loss of self-esteem that a child who witnesses violence at home feels. They also fail to convey the real impact that the normalisation of violence at home has on society.

If we are to reduce violence in a sustainable manner across society, it is crucial that we prevent and reduce violence in the home. Domestic violence is largely hidden behind the walls of private homes. And it remains hidden in the annual statistics because, when men beat up their wives or girlfriends, and if it is reported to the police, the crime will be recorded as an "assault common". If the assault is of a sexual nature, it will disappear into the catch-all category of "total sexual offences".

Even though the police are required to record cases involving domestic violence and report these statistics to parliament every six months, as part of their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act, they do not disaggregate domestic violence in the annual crime statistics or even in their six-monthly reports to parliament.

In addition, recent research by the Medical Research Council and the non-governmental organisation Gender Links questions the usefulness of the numbers that are reported to parliament.

This is because the cases recorded by the police include not only cases of men beating and threatening women at home, but also crimes involving the assault of children and the elderly by a range of "domestic" assailants. This makes it difficult to determine the extent of each type of crime or trends over time.

Because of the lack of statistics on domestic violence, it is very difficult to ascertain the extent of the problem, the patterns of its occurrence or the trends occurring over time.

Consequently, little attention will be paid to understanding and responding to a crime that affects a huge number of women each year.

So what do we know about domestic violence? Research by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council conducted in Gauteng found that although 51.2% of women had experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence at some point, only 0.3% had reported cases of domestic violence to the police.

This shows that the cases that are reported to the police represent only a small fraction of the actual number of instances of domestic violence that take place each year. The same study found that almost 80% of men admitted to perpetrating domestic violence at some point.

Changing the practices, prejudices and beliefs that inform gender violence is the only way to reduce it. This is why it is so important that opinions which demean the seriousness of gender violence should be rejected. This includes the opinions reportedly expressed by Constitutional Court Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in cases involving domestic violence and rape. The view that holds that domestic violence, or the rape of a wife by her husband, is not serious unless it results in serious injury is dangerous, as it provides the basis for legitimising intramarital rape and abuse.

Such views suggest an acceptance that, in certain situations, the abuse of women is "understandable" and "tolerable". These views are so harmful to our society that they should be openly condemned and rejected by political leaders, religious leaders and ordinary South Africans.

The same kind of prejudice leads to other "hate crimes" - crimes motivated by prejudice or discrimination against a person or a group on the basis of their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or any other feature that renders them "other" to the perpetrator.

They are crimes that not only violate the constitutional right to dignity and safety, but also the right to non-discrimination.

Most recently, hate crimes have surfaced in South Africa in the form of the murders and "corrective rape" of lesbians, xenophobia and racist attacks. Because these are crimes of prejudice, they have particularly serious consequences for the victims, because they are directed at a person's identity. These crimes are not recorded as a specific category and are therefore invisible when the police release their annual statistics.

They are likely to remain hidden for as long as there is not law to define and criminalise hate crimes as a separate category of crime, or until the SAPS creates a system for recording cases of hate crimes.

Until then, we will have to rely on the data collected by organisations that represent and support victims of these crimes.

Fortunately, the police are aware of the problems that arise from statistics that don't reveal different kinds of domestic violence, and they are talking to the civil society groups about how to address them. We hope that when the 2012 statistics come out, the difficulties will have been resolved.

But what is the solution? There are a number of ways in which domestic violence and gender violence can be reduced and that have been shown to work.

These solutions involve addressing the way in which boys understand and express their masculinity. They involve, for example, role-playing by boys and girls in school so that they can learn how to relate to each other in non-violent ways.

It also requires us to reinforce the notion that being a man is not only about being strong, violent and providing materially. It does not help simply to seek to protect women and children and put in place programmes to support victims.

This is important, but alone it engenders the view that women are weak, are like children and need to be protected, rather than recognised as equal members of society.

Until the prejudice and discrimination that informs domestic violence and hate crimes are addressed, we run the risk of remaining in a cycle of hidden violence that threatens the future.

It is, however, the task of all South Africans to deal with the underlying prejudice and discrimination that gives rise to these crimes, but it is particularly important for those who hold positions of power to reinforce the message that we reject violence of any form.

  • Gould is a senior researcher at the Crime and Justice Programme, Institute for Security Studies

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