Women’s rights: Gender-based violence in Africa is the highest in the world

Gender Violence
23 Mar 2016

According to a 2013 WHO report on violence against women, about 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetimes.

In addition, a staggering 45.6% of women 15 years and older in Africa have experienced intimate partner violence (physical and/or sexual) or non-partner sexual violence or both, the highest prevalence in the world.

The report states that this violence can affect women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health, and may increase vulnerability to HIV. Issues such as low education, child maltreatment or exposure to violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality are all factors that can influence this gender-based violence.

The report also indicates that there is evidence from high-income settings that school-based programmes could be effective in helping to prevent relationship or dating violence among young people. In lower income settings the primary prevention strategies include microfinance combined with gender equality training and community-based initiatives that address gender inequality and relationship skills.

These statistics are  one of the reasons that Bowman Gilfillan Africa Group took a decision to channel most of its pro bono efforts towards addressing gender and gender-based violence in South Africa and further afield on the African continent over the past year.

We have also strived to bring our pro bono activities in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include a specific goal to end discrimination and violence against women and girls. We did this in an effort to make visible the often hidden and uncomfortable issues of domestic violence, slavery and trafficking, abuse of female sexual reproductive rights, transgender concerns and the plight of sex workers.

In our efforts to address this crucial human rights issue and to contribute towards the suggested methods of resolving gender-based violence, we have partnered with several programmes that aim to help women and girls who have either been victims of violence or who might be vulnerable to such abuse later in life. We decided that we wanted to contribute our specialist legal skills in a way that is meaningful and effective in resolving this issue that affects so many women in Africa.

One way we did this was through the Randburg Magistrate’s Court.  Three years ago we identified a need for victims of domestic violence to be assisted to obtain protection orders. As a result, our volunteer attorneys help victims through the domestic violence helpdesk project at the Randburg Magistrate’s Court every Tuesday.

The success of our Johannesburg project was such that we searched for opportunities to start a similar project from our Cape Town office. To this end, we approached the Women’s Legal Centre (a non-profit, independently-funded law centre at the forefront of women’s rights) with a proposal to initiate a similar project at the Cape Town Magistrates Court and commenced a pilot project with them and the Department of Justice in 2014. We now service the helpdesk once a week, mostly assisting victims of domestic violence to obtain protection orders.

We also undertook to support the project in whichever way we could. In this regard we invited the Equal Education Law Centre (a law clinic set up to advocate for education in South Africa and with whom we have fostered an independent relationship) to support the project by volunteering their attorneys to service the helpdesk for the rest of the week.

We also support Lawyers vs Abuse, a non-profit organization that provides free legal and psycho-social support to victims of gender-based violence, particularly assisting victims in the informal settlement of Diepsloot on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

In addition, we assist the Women’s Legal Centre, a public interest law centre started by women to enable women to use the law to advance their rights to equality. One of the projects the Legal Centre identified for Johannesburg was to provide legal services to sex workers, who remain an unrecognized work force. Furthermore, the current legal framework is conducive to the violation of sex workers’ human rights. To address this, the Centre has been advocating for legislative reform, working with partners such as Sisonke (national sex worker movement) and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) to decriminalise sex work.

The Centre has developed a legal advice and litigation model that is operated at a national level. It involves: human rights documentation; free legal advice; legal representation for individual clients insofar as their cases will be of great impact for other sex workers; advocacy, which involves policy reform; human rights training; and strategic impact litigation. The Centre has employed and trained former sex workers as paralegals. They assist in screening clients as well as completing human rights documentation, education and in advocacy.

The Centre required pro bono assistance with individual cases and as a result our lawyers now participate in the Centre’s sex workers’ clinic. We hold one-on-one consultations with sex workers regarding their legal matters, mostly dealing with police violence, domestic and harassment violence and consumer matters. To support the initiative and prior to our participating in the clinics, we held sensitisation and legal training sessions to empower our lawyers to deal with these matters effectively.

We also recently partnered with Amnesty International in a panel discussion held alongside the African Union Summit. The event emphasised that universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights were essential in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, reducing poverty and reaching the development goals of Africa’s Agenda 2063.

In addition, when we were invited by the Department of Justice to participate in an access to justice week for women’s month, our lawyers hosted  the University of the Western Cape law clinic for two days,  while the students were on holiday, providing free legal aid to women in the Cape area.

In relation to maternity and childbirth, several rights set forth in regional and international conventions are violated when governments fail to protect women from related illnesses and death, including unsafe abortions. In this regard, our offices in South Africa and Uganda were requested by the Vance Centre to provide legal advice to a non-profit organization whose key objective is to assist women in countries with restrictive abortion laws to access safe and affordable abortions.

Another programme aided by our Nairobi office, Just One Life, supports nine girls who are in public universities across Kenya. These girls who are academically gifted are in various stages of their various degree courses. They come from needy backgrounds and their families sometimes cannot afford a daily meal.

These are just a few of the important programmes that have grown out of a need to address Africa’s shocking gender-based violence statistics. These are statistics that all of us should be helping to address and that none of us can ignore.

Our pro bono contribution during the financial year ending on 29 February amounted to over 8 000 hours and was valued at over ZAR 15.9 million.

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(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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