Business should help address the scourge of gender-based violence

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South Africa is in the grip of a gender-based violence (GBV) epidemic. Given that one in three women are victims of GBV, business needs to recognise that its workforce is subject to this epidemic and take more responsibility for addressing the issue, not only in the workplace but in society at large.
This was the call to action from Sazini Mojapelo, a gender equality advocate and CEO of the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) Response Fund, in her address to delegates at the 2023 Trialogue Business in Society Conference.

A costly epidemic

The country’s statistics paint a desperate picture of the violent reality women experience. South Africa’s femicide rate is five times higher than the global average and the country has the highest incidence of rape globally. Every 8 hours a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Mojapelo noted that for every one in three women who experience abuse, one in three men are perpetrators of that abuse. However, these pervasive violations of basic human rights are the least prosecuted crime in our nation.

Mojapelo made the case that, while GBV is usually seen as taking place in the intimate partner space, in South Africa it has also taken hold in the public space driven, in part, by the slow prosecution of perpetrators. The cost of GBV to the South African economy is estimated at as much as R42.4 billion annually.

Companies should collaborate to address GBV

She highlighted the conspicuous absence of business in efforts by civil society and government to address GBV, which culminated in the development of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, published in 2020.

While business has begun to take more interest in the issue since the plan was launched, Mojapelo said an effective response to the problem will require the collective effort of different sectors in society to uphold the rights of women and girls and achieve gender equality. “GBV comes with a myriad factors that silence the voices of victims. In the GBV advocacy landscape – business has been too silent. Civil society cannot do it alone. Government cannot do it alone. Employers and employees need to collaborate and see how we can bring an end to it. It is so endemic, it must be affecting employees. To deliver in the fight against GBV it is important that we look at how we can eliminate it in the world of work.”

Mojapelo says that ending gender-based violence requires a shift in societal attitudes, including in the workplace. She encouraged business leaders to adopt tools and frameworks to prevent GBV in the workplace and hold corporate stakeholders to account, addressing gender parity and driving gender equality, with particular focus on diversity and inclusion that incorporates the LGBTQ+ community. The GBV focus in the workplace needs to shift beyond compliance, as an after-the-fact issue that falls under a framework of sexual harassment or whistle blowing, and towards prevention and the creation of a zero-tolerance environment.

The GBVF Response Fund, a multi-sectoral response fund coordinating a national response to the GBVF pandemic, was launched in 2021. Upon launch, 67% of funding came from the Private Sector, 33% from social

development and philanthropic organisations and 0.01% from public donations. The fund has disbursed R69M to date, with 60% of funds going to rural and informal areas and 45 GBV hotspots. “We amplify, we fund, we convene stakeholders to activate against GBV. But most of all, we’re an accountability partner,” says Mojapelo.

She emphasised the role of business in active citizenship. “It is not enough for business leaders to stay where we are without doing something about the social ills our country experiences. If we stand together, and we stand united, we can end gender-based violence in South Africa.”

As one of the first large corporates to unveil a clear policy on gender-based violence, Vodacom urged other businesses to do the same and to partner on addressing the scourge in communities. Vodacom Managing Director Sitho Mdlalose says, “The S in ESG is embedded in the real societal ills in the places in which business operates. As business, our social investment plans and our social frameworks must address things such as gender-based violence. When it comes to GBV, the real enemy we face is silence.”

Taki Netshitenzhe, Director of External Affairs for Vodacom South Africa and Chairperson of the Vodacom Foundation, spoke about the company’s Change the World programme, which forms part of Vodacom’s GBV ecosystem providing prevention, response, and victim support, in partnership with government and civil society organisations. The programme funds and supports psychosocial workers in schools, in partnership with the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The Vodacom Foundation further launched the Bright Sky mobile app, which provides information on GBV and access to support services.

“By working with the DBE, we hope to address some of the root causes of GBV at school level, which put so many of our young people, especially girls, at risk,” says Netshitenzhe. “A fundamental issue is that we do not have enough psychosocial experts in the field and in the schools. We call on government to do more to deploy these professionals. We need more corporates to work with us in this space.”