On Friday 7 November this year a petition was circulated asking Minister of Women in the Presidency, Susan Shabangu, to develop a National Plan of Action on Gender-Based Violence.

The new Department of Women has a specific focus on ensuring the economic empowerment of women, and many people feel that this focus ignores that women are often at the intersection of numerous forms of prejudice and disadvantage that go beyond the money in their wallets.

Economic empowerment
is certainly critical to ensuring better lives for women.

This is no small task with females making up the majority of the South Africa’s unemployed, despite having equal access to education at a primary level, and more women registering for higher education.

As of 2011, the average woman’s annual income remains less than the average man’s income in 2001.

Economic disempowerment makes it harder to access a number of other services such as adequate health care, and makes it harder to leave an abusive relationship.

Women’s economic empowerment is vital, to allow them to fully exercise the rights afforded to them by the Constitution, and other pieces of legislation.

But there is something else that also holds us all back – the threat of violence, or its actualisation. Women are disproportionately the victims of sexual offences, common assault, and assault with the intention to do grievous bodily harm.

This means that the threat of violence is a reality for many women – in their homes, workplaces, and on the streets. South Africa is not a safe place for women, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Certain women are more vulnerable than others, which makes responding to the problem of violence against women a very complex task.

The way that the State has met this problem in the past is to introduce pieces of legislation. Legislation around sexual offences, domestic violence, and harassment exist in South Africa.

On paper, they are pretty impressive laws giving women legal protection from violence, and routes for remedy if it does happen. What we need is to implement them.

Statistics suggest that legislation has certainly not acted as a deterrent for abusers, possibly because the number of cases where a conviction occurs in comparison to the number of reported cases of sexual offences is as low as 4%. So laws are too little, too late.

What we're lacking at the moment is consistent, multi-faceted activities aimed at preventing violence. We know that violence against women is mostly perpetrated by men, and so whilst a number of the comments that Minister Shabangu made were extremely problematic, the decision to focus on working with men and boys is important.

A great deal of research indicates that children who are exposed to violence during their childhood have a higher likelihood of becoming violent adults.

So working with men and boys is important, to prevent the next generation of kids seeing their mothers being beaten by their fathers.

In addition, the very many ways that men (through masculinity) are encouraged not to talk about their feelings, not to be weak, not to seek support and counseling, must be addressed if we are to live in a country where there is mutual respect for men and women.

But working with men and boys cannot and should not be the only focus during the 16 Days Campaign. Other areas that require our attention are:

- What is going on with the funding of NGOs working with violence survivors, and working with women in communities?

- We need to look at the alcohol industry, and why it is still allowed to advertise when its risks seem far more immediate than smoking. Alcohol and gender-based violence are the best of friends.

- We need to look at why there isn’t good sanitation, streetlights, and accessible, regular transport in many parts of South Africa so that women do not have to risk their lives to get to work whilst the streets remain unsafe.

- We need to ask why there aren’t enough shelters in the country, so that women do not end up homeless because they needed to get out.

- We need to be looking at violence in the home.

We need to ensure that the focus on the survivors of violence is not lost. We need to make sure that 16 Days, once a year, is not the only time we spend thinking about prevention. That’s why I support the call for the development of a plan. I hope you consider it too.

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