Recently, several cases of gender-based violence (GBV) have received extensive coverage in the South African media. Tragically, it seems that these are just the tip of an iceberg of violent crime against women. On a more positive note, the collective revulsion felt by society at these crimes could also prove to be a tipping point. If so, it is long overdue.
It is self-evident that GBV has very significant impacts on the women and children who are subjected to it. In the most extreme cases, lives are lost. Survivors of GBV are left with lasting physical, psychological and emotional damage – and they do not always have access to the resources that they need to help them cope.
In addition to counting the human cost of GBV, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the current pandemic of GBV in South Africa also has a severe and calculable economic cost.
It is easy to see how factors such as corruption or load shedding impact the economy, but the economic cost of GBV is less obvious. This does not, of course, mean that it is any less important. Gender-based violence is unacceptable on every level; considering its economic cost adds further, unarguable weight to calls for this urgent social crisis to be decisively addressed.
Inequality breeds contempt
As many observers have noted, GBV is a crime of inequality. It is underpinned by cultural norms and traditions that assign more power to men than to women, and archaic attitudes that regard women as the “property” of men or as being somehow subservient or of lesser standing.
Even women who are not subjected to GBV can have their economic prospects curtailed by existing social and economic structures. They are likely to bear far more of the responsibility for childcare and homemaking – activities that are intensely labour- and time-intensive, and yet are not directly economically productive.
Social inequality forms a vicious circle with economic inequality as it prevents women from being able to deliver on their economic potential. It excludes them from economically productive sectors of the economy and condemns them to low-wage or even zero-wage activities.
This means that individual women, families, communities and the economy all suffer. With the additional burden of GBV, this loss becomes very significant – especially in the case of a BRICS-level economy that already has business confidence and leadership issues.
The cost of GBV
A 2015 study by auditors KPMG conservatively estimated that the economic costs of GBV in South Africa amount to between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP annually. These estimates are based on the terrifying estimate that 1 in 5 women in SA will suffer some form of GBV every year. To put these figures into context, even the lower estimate is higher than the total cost of building the existing Gautrain network.
GBV clearly has the potential to limit South Africa’s attainment of its full economic potential, and can be viewed as an additional component in a “perfect storm” of economic headwinds. The loss of around 1% of GDP annually to a preventable cause not only impacts South Africa’s economic outlook, but has a deterrent effect on investment decisions.
While these huge numbers conceal many stories of personal and financial suffering, gender-based violence impacts on the national economy in many ways. Dealing with the immediate consequences of GBV (assuming it is even reported; many suspected cases are not) consumes policing and healthcare resources, and impacts the delivery of social services, housing and education.
The fear of GBV can cause women to lack the confidence required to set up their own enterprises or seek employment; abusive or controlling partners may seek to prevent women from earning their own money.
Families or communities where GBV is prevalent are less likely to be stable, which means higher rates of default on loans and other financial arrangements (the exact opposite to situations where women entrepreneurs have access to microfinance).
Women who experience violence or abuse are inevitably less productive, due to being injured, traumatised or controlled by abusive partners. Even though they could make a meaningful and necessary contribution to household finances, their partners deem it more important to maintain their male hegemony.
Where women who are employed suffer violence, they will almost certainly have to take time off work which incurs additional costs for their employers. Women entrepreneurs can struggle to sustain a business when they are being abused.
Understanding the economic impact of gender-based violence only makes it more imperative that we redouble our efforts to put a halt to this immensely damaging behaviour. This relatively new way of assessing the harm caused by GBV can be used in tandem with the latest thinking on preventing (or transforming) this type of violence.
Transforming violence into respect
Leading anti-GBV activists such as Dr Saida Désilets have proposed that the solution to gender-based violence is not to fight it, but to change the way we think about it. Gender-based violence should be seen as being caused by a lack of respect. Therefore, the solution is to increase the respect that women are held in, by men and by themselves.
Social entrepreneurship – leading to economic independence – can help women achieve this level of self-respect. By demonstrating what they can achieve, they make it impossible for men not to respect them, and so gender-based violence diminishes.
Given that GBV and the economic impact it has are issues that affect everyone in society (through lost earnings, lost revenues and lost taxes), the only way to avoid society paying this price is to facilitate more respectful communities. That is, communities where women, their bodies and their entrepreneurial activities are all respected.