10 December 2020 | Story Gcina Mtengwane and Andiswa Khumalo | Photo Scott sa ha Molefe (Scott Photography)
Gcina Mtengwane and Andiswa Khumalo
Gcina Mtengwane and Andiswa Khumalo believe economic vulnerability of women is a cause and a propellant of gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence can be understood as violence that is perpetuated as a result of normative role expectations associated with gender, power, and culture. It takes different forms. The most common forms are physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, domestic and socio-economic violence, to mention a few.

It is a profound, widespread, and pressing matter in South Africa and beyond its borders. In its entirety, gender-based violence is a threat to the economy, society, and humanity, as it creates emotional, social, and economic unrest that prohibits the growth and success of individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. More than 30% of women in South Africa suffer from gender-based violence in the form of harassment, rape, femicide or domestic violence. Although women and young girls are the worst affected by gender-based violence, the term and act apply to both genders, including men and young boys.

Economic vulnerability of women

Notwithstanding the fact that gender-based violence happens to both genders, it is worth noting that women are the worst affected. There is a myriad of reasons for this. This article puts its focus on the economic vulnerability of women as both a cause and a propellant of gender-based violence. What we argue here is that there are structural socio-economic differentials that create and perpetuate the vulnerability of women to gender-based violence. We further posit that unless these vulnerabilities are addressed, gender-based violence will be a persistent problem for generations to come.

Our starting point is that women in South Africa generally have a higher unemployment rate than men. Additional to this, women struggle to ascertain livelihoods outside employment. This means that even in cases where women are employed, they will earn less than men. Furthermore, women also struggle to succeed in entrepreneurship. This can be associated with the ‘unpaid normative duties’ of child-rearing and household maintenance. This makes them vulnerable to abuse, as they cannot exercise their independent social and economic existence outside the confines and control of the male partner. It is worth noting that black African women are the most vulnerable, with an unemployment rate of more than 30%.

More worrying is that more than four out of every ten young females (15-34) are not in employment, education, or training (NEET). This further exacerbates the vulnerability context across all ages. Females consistently record a higher headcount; however, they remain behind in social, political, economic, and cultural matters. To amplify this, Statistics SA (2020) reports that 39,2% of female-headed households in South Africa do not have an employed member of the household.

Another point of concern is that there is a ‘social class and income link’ associated with gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is more prevalent among less-educated women than those with secondary education or higher. Additional to this, wealth/income is a key factor in the prevalence of gender-based violence. To that end, Statistics SA (2020) reported that the prevalence of physical and sexual violence decreased with the wealth quintile. In other words, the higher the wealth/income, the lower the prevalence of gender-based violence.

Overcoming economic vulnerability

Over and above all of this, the bigger question is, ‘how do we overcome the economic vulnerability that subjects poor women to gender-based violence?’ Here are a few contemplations:
1) Empowerment of women and economic justice. It may be good to take more deliberate and decisive action to capacitate women to a point where they are able to support their own livelihoods outside of economic dependence on a male.
2) Unlearning the outdated gender roles. Research suggests that more and more women are exiting the ‘nurturing and child-rearing’ role. This is because of the rising cost of living. Technology has made paid work less labour intensive. This then eliminates physical traits as a requirement for high-paying employment opportunities.
3) Socio-cultural re-engineering. This speaks to unlearning outdated cultural norms and dictates. While noting that every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations, these can also change over time. Perhaps now is the time for those expectations to change. If its existence is tantamount to abuse and even death, then certainly we need to unlearn the toxic and outdated and learn the forward-looking and solidarity-inducing doctrine.
4) Women as spearheads in women’s issues to inform legislation, policy, and practice. As the adage goes, ‘one is the master of your own condition’. This means that a person’s awareness of her/his condition allows them to be better suited to make the best inputs to liberate herself and those in like conditions.  

A lot more than what we suggest can be done to uplift women from the economic vulnerability that subjects them to gender-based violence in the household and elsewhere. We do not hold a monopoly on gender-based violence and the solutions therein. Our only hope is to spark a conversation that will contribute to feasible real-life solutions to one of our biggest and far-reaching challenges as a nation – gender-based violence and its socio-economic roots.

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