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Gender equality an unrealistic dream for SADC

Gender-based violence (GBV) is not a single crime committed in a vacuum. It is committed daily and targets “women, gay men, lesbians, transgenders, transsexuals, intersex, girls [and] boys”. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol [1] signed by all states except Mauritius and Botswana [2] states that GBV

“Means all acts perpetrated against women, men, girls and boys, on the basis of their sex which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economic harm, including the threat to take such acts, or to undertake the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on, or deprivation of, fundamental freedoms in private or public life in peace time and during situations of armed or other forms of conflict.” [3]

Rape is thus only one representation of a system of crimes that include economic abuse, school sexual bullying, the restriction of movement or gay-bashing. Millennium Development Goal 3 is to promote gender equality and empower women and thus GBV must be tackled in order for this development goal to be achieved.

Historically the tool that has been used to counter GBV has been the law. Following various gender protocols the governments of the SADC countries have readily developed legislation criminalising GBV to varying degrees. Yet, legislative solutions to the problem of GBV and rape in the SADC region can be likened to covering one’s eyes in order to see no evil.

Why has the law failed survivors and victims of GBV? There are the obvious answers such as poor implementation by service providers, prosecutors and magistrates, a lack of budget to enforce significant penalties on perpetrators, the lack of human-resource capacity to support survivors of GBV so that they are strong witnesses in their trial, and the inaccessibility of the law to the survivor. These answers are correct but are, quite simply, insufficient.

The law has failed survivors and victims of GBV most significantly because it has not targeted the root of GBV in Southern Africa. Thus, despite the existence of law criminalising rape in many of the member states, these acts of violence persist, with growing frequency and brutality. The law can only deal with the symptoms of the problem, when what is needed is something that resolves the cause.

In August 2010 reports of mass gang rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were a clear indicator of how little law does to prevent these types of crime. More than 100 women and young children were gang raped in a single weekend [4]. Legislation is insufficient because it is situated within cultural contexts that enable and support the idea that GBV is acceptable, if not deserved. The perpetrators of GBV are part of a society, a culture and a community. GBV stems not only from the hand at the end of a body, but from the societal relationships, community norms and powerful understandings of gender roles that shape that hand into a fist. The same understandings keep survivors of violence quiet by encouraging them to believe that they are the ones to blame.

For example, a young woman was raped while on holiday in Mauritius by a businessman. When she returned to her godmother’s home to tell her, her godmother encouraged her to keep quiet because of the damage speaking out would cause to his reputation, and the shame that it would bring to her. The survivor returned home, unsupported, with the knowledge that society did more to support and protect a rapist than it did her. [5]

The community that rejected her need for support is governed by their leaders. These leaders have the opportunity to respond rapidly and vocally to incidents of GBV in the age of instant information. The heads of state of countries in the SADC region have committed themselves to protecting vulnerable groups, and putting laws in place to prevent rape. Yet, in the weeks of August 2010 that followed yet another gang rape in the DRC not a single statement was made by the neighbours of the DRC, nor any other countries in the SADC region. None of those leaders stated that “a real man does not rape”, nor did they provide humanitarian assistance to the many women and children who had survived this rampage. Their silence and lack of action spoke volumes.

Governments of these nations are failing victims and survivors of these crimes because of their unwillingness to challenge and critique the cultural structures that allow these activities to persist. “Treating sexual and gender-based violence as exceptional likewise leaves the conditions and situation [of sexual inequality and gender inequality] intact.” [6] By ignoring these situations of rape as though they were anomalies, the governments of the SADC region allow the system of violence and silence to persist and grow in strength.

The silence of these leaders when GBV does occur tells us several things. First it tells us that they place the rights of women and girls below their desire to have comfortable and convenient cross-border relations. Second, it tells us that much must be done to strengthen the ability of these leaders to constructively critique one another in order to ensure the maximum freedom for their citizens. Most importantly it tells us that they are afraid of critiquing masculinity, and of developing new understandings of what it means to be a man, at the risk of losing out on an electorate that remains entrenched in patriarchal ontology.

The bottom line is that rape is not a crime committed by a monster, it is a crime committed by a person. That person, and this is not unique to Africa, is most commonly a man. Until we question what drives those men, and until our leaders are brave enough to create new ideas of masculinity that are not based on power over women, this Millennium Development Goal remains a theoretical legislative goal, and rape and GBV will persist relentlessly.

[1] This Protocol commits the Heads of State of the following nations (by virtue of their membership to SADC) to making changes within their countries: The Republic of Angola, The Republic of Botswana, The Democratic Republic of Congo, The Kingdom of Lesotho, The Republic of Madagascar, The Republic of Malawi, The Republic of Mauritius, The Republic of Mozambique, The Republic of Namibia, The Republic of South Africa, The Kingdom of Swaziland, The United Republic of Tanzania, The Republic of Zambia and the Republic of Zimbabwe. As of 17 August 2008 the Heads of State of Botswana and Mauritius had not yet signed it

[2] Accurate as of August 27 2010

[3] SADC Gender Protocol


[5] You can read her account of the complexity of her situation at

[6] Dan Moshenberg. 2009. “Sexual and gender based violence: everyday, everywhere and yet…” in Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Africa. Concerned African Scholars. Bulletin number 83: Fall 2009. Accessible via


  • Jen Thorpe

    Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on