Gender-based violence (GBV) is at epidemic levels in South Africa, made even more terrifying by the fact that it is estimated only one in nine cases are reported to the authorities. In the face of this stark reality, Public Sector Senior Specialist at Altron Karabina Murunwa Mashamba says technology has the potential to make deep inroads into the problem.
Murunwa says that digital transformation, or the digitisation of processes, is not only the preserve of businesses seeking a competitive edge. On the contrary, she says, technology holds immense potential in how governments connect with their citizens and in the case of South Africa, it could drastically improve the prospects of GBV victims finding justice.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that South Africa’s femicide rate is five times higher than the global average and earlier this year when the South African Police Service (SAPS) released its crime statistics for the first three months of 2023, it emerged that 969 women were murdered between the start of January and the end of March, and that 10512 cases of rape were reported.
The Medical Research Council said in June 2022 that while there were 150 rape cases reported in South Africa every day, they estimated that the real number was closer to 1500. Of the reported cases, the council said that 30 make it to court and 10 result in prison sentences.
“The odds are stacked against women and children, this much is certain,” says Mashamba. “We are all aware of the persistent problems within the system, but let’s take a moment to consider the life of a poor woman or child being victimised. The onus is on this person to report the case, and we find that many in the community turn a blind eye as it does not directly affect them. And so we must ask: How can technology – which has spearheaded immense progress in various sectors – make a difference?”
According to Statista, the smartphone penetration in South Africa this year is 82.46% and by 2028 it will be 91.31%. “Almost everyone has a phone, and we’ve all seen young children playing on them. We have a great opportunity to develop an application that connects victims of domestic abuse and GBV to the correct SAPS unit and other relevant organisations instantly. If a poor person is abused, do we presume they have the confidence or even the money to take public transport to go and report the crime? On the other hand, as we see with banking apps, we can produce highly effective and user-friendly applications that do not require the user to have data – this is a fundamental shift,” explains Mashamba.
She says that digitising processes would not undermine the existing required processes according to South African law. On the contrary, it could offer even more protection to the victim, who could upload evidence to a secure and safe file that is immediately assigned to the relevant investigating officers and approved recipients. Neighbours, too, could have a secure and anonymous platform to register their concerns without the usual fear that may accompany this action, explains Mashamba.
“Sadly, in this country we do not have to go long before another well-publicised case horrifies us all. How often have we heard that there was a history of violence but that cases were withdrawn? I would suggest that by using a digital channel that connects the complaint to the right places and not in full view of the perpetrator, we may see fewer instances of victims being coerced into withdrawing cases,” says Mashamba.
She explains that just like all digital transformation projects, there needs to be wide scale buy-in. “Obviously, SAPS, NGOs and other support entities need to fully appreciate and understand how the digitising of processes will support their work, while there would need to be a deliberate and purposeful campaign to drive awareness within communities to get their buy-in too.
“Ultimately, something like this would be underpinned by a single purpose: getting more victims to report GBV safely, securely and to the correct people so that GBV perpetrators can pay for their crimes. Technology is not a panacea to fix the world’s problems, but it certainly can be leveraged to make things safer, faster and more effective,” says Mashamba.