Subverting Patriarchal Narratives using Transitional Justice: A South African View

April 13, 2023

Women are often understood to be particularly vulnerable during conflicts, perceived as the non-combatant, civilian collateral damage that comes with war. This is because rape and other forms of sexual violence targeting women (SGBV) feature heavily in war strategy, with evidence to suggest that soldiers have been encouraged to adopt SGBV by their commanding officers in the Russian army in Ukraine, in the Syrian Armed Forces, and in the Mai-Maimilitia in the DRC. And so, women are widely regarded as protectees – with UN Resolution 3318 even grouping women and children together – and their male counterparts as the protectors. However, with men in security forces being understood as both the perpetrators of and protectors from war-time SGBV, perhaps a more productive conversation than this protectee-protector dichotomy would be one around the core, underlying triggers of SGBV in society that war simply exacerbates with inclusion into militaristic ideologies.

To engage with these core reasons behind SGBV, this commentary will focus on how best to overcome SGBV in what Interpol has labelled the “rape capital of the world”, South Africa.

SGBV in South Africa

Despite not being at war, in the 2019/2020 period, 42,289 rapes were reported in South Africa. Between July and September 2022 alone, more than 10,000 rapes were recorded, with the October and December 2022 figure sitting at 5,935. SGBV is not a new problem in the country, with StatsSA estimating that 55,000 women were rape victims in 1997 – just three years after the country’s first democratic elections. With regards to homicide, just under 1,000 women were killed as a result of domestic violence between April and September 2022. While globally, 27% of women and girls 15 years and older have experienced such physical or sexual intimate partner violence, in South Africa, this figure rises to between 33% and 50% depending on estimates.

This endemic and pervasive nature of SGBV in South Africa led to thousands protesting nationwide in 2018 and 2019 in what is now remembered as the #TheTotalShutdown movement. In response, the government held a summit on the matter, with the President, Cyril Ramaphosa, signing the Gender-BasedViolence and Femicide Declaration in March 2019. More recently in November 2022, the country held its Second Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. However, given that the number of rapes reported in the country has since increased from this 2018/2019 period, no significant changes in rape and sexual assault rates can be observed since the government began holding these presidential summits four years ago. Current intervention is not, therefore, tangibly represented in quantitative data.

Solutions to Pervasive SGBV: Transitional Justice 

The UN defines SGBV as including sexual, physical, psychological and socio-economic violence, rooted in beliefs that perpetuate gender inequality and the powerlessness of women. And so, SGBV is intricately linked to patriarchal structures and institutions that determine the power dynamic between men and women in society. UN Women further identifies SGBV as a tool for men to either maintain or gain power and control over their partners or other women. And so, the core motivation behind SGBV can be understood as patriarchal beliefs and attitudes. As a result, unlike other criminal acts such as theft or fraud, rape and sexual assault require a cultural and institutional shift in order to be addressed.

One approach to achieving this cultural shift is through transitional justice – defined as a response to widespread and systematic human rights violations seeking victim redress and acknowledgement, alongside the prevention of recurring violence, typically in the form of a truth commission accompanied by reparations programmes, memorialisation efforts, institutional reform and even criminal prosecutions. While the truth commission model first emerged in Argentina in 1983, the popularisation of the truth commission is typically attributed to South Africa, with its 1996 Truthand Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It is here, in fact, that the first allusions to a SGBV truth commission emerged in South Africa, where the TRCs Chairperson of the Commission on Gender, Thenjiwe Mtintso, warned that was the TRC to continue its pursuit of a gender-blind mandate, despite violence against women having reached “genocide levels”, the country would need an additional truth commission to address SGBV in the future.

And so, as Mtintso highlighted 20 years ago, while typically adopted in the wake of war and authoritarianism in nascent democracies, the truth commission dual goals of justice and future prevention stand to be particularly useful when addressing femicide. This is because South Africa is in dire need of both justice for SGBV victims – currently sitting with a 8% conviction rate for rape –  and of prevention or alleviation of future SGBV through building historical narratives that vilify SGBV and encourage changes in patriarchal attitudes and behaviours, as well as by determining the root causes of SGBV and recommending institutional and reparations reforms to address them.  


Much like the inclusion of women in the security sector stands to change the cultural fabric of militaries and other security structures – in so doing reform society’s masculine, patriarchal understanding of militaristic ideologies, and the role of women during conflict – transitional justice, and truth commissions in particular, can also be adopted to encourage and promote the cultural changes needed to alleviate SGBV in South Africa.

What these similarities between SecuirtyWomen’s purpose and this proposed application of transitional justice to South Africa therefore highlight is that patriarchal structures and cultures shape violence, and any solutions must engage with changing cultural beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate SGBV and other gendered harms. Gendered harms can no longer be treated like other crimes, both during war and times of peace, because this risks decontextualising these harms from their patriarchal root causes. Society can no longer afford to address SGBV and other forms of violence by relying on traditionally masculine, militaristic protectors, rather it must reform structures and institutions to delegitimize the protector-protectee dichotomy, and subvert the patriarchal narratives that perpetuate gendered harms.

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