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Guns don't mean safety, especially for women

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Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. Observed annually on 8 March, it is a time to not only reflect on progress made by women, but also a call to action for increasing the global momentum towards gender equality.

The prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is one of the clearest markers of continued inequality between men and women in any society. South Africa has particularly high levels of SGBV for a country not involved in conflict.

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Between 29% and 51% of women across four of South Africa’s nine provinces have reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

A case of intimate femicide (when a woman is murdered by her husband or boyfriend) happens every eight hours; and the police record over 50 000 cases of sexual assault per year, a figure that is estimated to be a fraction of the real rate.

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These rates of SGBV occur in a context where levels of violence are high in general. The 2015 Global Burden of Armed Violence Report shows that South Africa is among a small group of countries that exhibit the greatest concentration of lethal violence in the world. Given that they’re deadly and easy to use, firearms play a significant role in the perpetration of deadly violence. A 2009 study on injury-related mortality found that firearms are the second leading cause of homicide in South Africa. Gunshot injuries were also found to be a leading cause of death, resulting in ‘17.6 firearm-related deaths per day.’

The majority of homicide victims are male – both globally and in South Africa. However when women are killed, the perpetrators are usually men, and guns are often the preferred weapon. Women are paradoxically the most vulnerable within ‘safe’ spaces such as their own homes, where guns are used to intimidate, threaten and control women, usually in the context of domestic disputes.

In South Africa, a woman is at greater risk of being shot by her partner, in her home and with a legal gun than being shot by a stranger. As is the case in many countries, guns are highly masculinised in South Africa: they are often viewed as a means to demonstrate manhood, wield authority and validate power. Most firearms are owned by men, ‘whether in state structures such as the police or military, as part of non-state armed groups, gangs and militias, for leisure or sporting activities such as hunting, or for self-defence in the home’. The high levels of firearms circulating in South Africa, together with traditional concepts of masculinity, are a deadly combination.

While the complexity of intimate partner violence means that a range of interventions are needed to reduce risk and build resilience, many of them involve long-term commitments. These include early childhood development programmes, job creation and tackling substance abuse. While all these interventions must be pursued if we are to eradicate the social, economic and health-related drivers of intimate partner violence, there are also specific, short-term interventions at our disposal.

Used in conjunction, the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) (1998) and the Firearms Control Act (FCA) (2000) are powerful tools for immediate and effective primary prevention. The FCA allows the Central Firearms Registry and/or the courts to declare someone unfit to possess a firearm if that person has a history of or inclination towards violent behaviour; a drug or alcohol dependency or is mentally unstable. The effect of this declaration is the immediate removal of the weapon.

Similarly, the DVA places an obligation on magistrates to order the removal of weapons under certain circumstances, including when there is a history or threat of domestic violence, mental instability and drug or alcohol dependence.

According to research released in 2014, the passing of the FCA not only directly contributed to a decline in general gun homicide in South Africa, but was also most likely responsible for a significant decrease in gun-related intimate femicide between 1999 and 2009.

Some aspects of the DVA remain challenging to implement, however. Research conducted in 2001 found that magistrates granted orders for the removal of firearms only in a fraction of cases where women mentioned guns in their affidavits to apply for protection orders, where there was proof of threat, or where the seizure of the gun was specifically requested by the applicant.

Another concern is the low reporting of gun use by victims of intimate partner violence. Women are ill informed of their rights under these laws. Among other reasons, the number of women who apply for protection orders requesting the removal of weapons remains low because of ‘the lack of clarity in the application form … along with cultural and conceptual problems around the definition of a dangerous weapon.’

Three interlinked efforts can save lives immediately. The first is the appropriate restriction of gun ownership by designated firearms officers who, empowered with the necessary knowledge, skills and resources, could identify and motivate for high-risk individuals to be disqualified from gun ownership before they have access to a firearm.

Second, courts should be proactive – and police officers should routinely ask about the presence of a gun and ensure its removal when responding to incidents of intimate partner violence, even when victims do not request this or when the incident of abuse does not directly involve a firearm. Finally, both women at risk and the broader public need to be informed of the protective provisions contained in the FCA and DVA, and to be encouraged to act upon or utilise the law to safeguard themselves, their families and community members.

Most importantly, the myth that having a gun in the home increases a family’s safety needs to be dispelled. Guns come with risks, and those risks include the injury and death of anyone in the home.

Gun Free South Africa, the Institute for Security Studies and Sonke Gender Justice have been running the #GunFreeValentine campaign from 14 February until International Women’s Day tomorrow to raise awareness that any woman who lives in fear of a gun or other dangerous weapon in her home can ask the police or the courts to remove the weapon immediately.

Written by Romi Sigsworth, Gender Specialist, ISS Pretoria

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