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Gvt must urgently address GBV scourge: Report

Lesotho's widely read newspaper, published every Thursday and distributed throughout the country and in some parts of South Africa.

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Herbert Moyo

MOST Basotho have railed against gender-based violence (GBV), saying the scourge is the “most important women’s-rights issue that the government and society must address”.

This and other findings are contained in the latest report from the Afrobarometer research institute released this week. The findings by the internationally acclaimed institute come at a time when Lesotho and the rest of the world are commemorating 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The commemorations are held annually, beginning on 25 November, which is also known as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. They run through to 10 December which has been designated by the United Nations (UN) as International Human Rights Day.

This year’s commemorations are being held under the theme: “UNiTE! Activism to end violence against women and girls”.

GBV is a major problem in Lesotho, often resulting in femicide, rape of women and girls and other violent crimes. A 2020 study by the Commonwealth of Nations revealed that Lesotho is paying a huge cost annually due to GBV as the costs amount to 5, 5 percent of the country’s GDP. The costs are for litigation, absenteeism and loss of production at work and hospital expenses among other things, the study found.

It was against the background that Afrobarometer conducted research and released its findings on GBV.

In a summary of the findings, Afrobarometer notes that although the scourge affects both sexes, “GBV is a reality for many women in Lesotho”.

“The Police Child and Gender Protection Unit reports that from January through July 2022, there were 184 sexual offences and 45 assault cases perpetrated against women. In 2021, at least 47 percent of women murdered in Lesotho were killed by their intimate partners. GBV is a serious threat to the nation both developmentally and economically, recognised as one of the drivers of HIV in a country that has the third-highest prevalence rate in the world at 23, 2 percent.

“Activists blame patriarchy for fuelling GBV in the country. Despite the Sexual Offences Act and the Married Persons Act providing for equal rights for men and women in marriage, the Customary Law subordinating women to men is still very much part of society in Lesotho. In June 2022, the Upper House passed the Counter Domestic Violence Bill 2021, but critics say policing and judicial responses will also need to be strengthened to reduce the country’s GBV problem.”

In its findings, Afrobarometer states that “almost two-thirds (64 percent) of citizens identify gender-based violence as the most important women’s-rights issue for the government and society to address.

“GBV ranks far ahead of unequal opportunities or pay in the workplace, unequal rights of property ownership and inheritance, unequal access to education, and too few women in influential positions in government (7 percent) as priorities”.

The research institute found that only 11 percent of Basotho surveyed said unequal opportunities among men and women in the workplace was the most pressing issue requiring urgent government attention. Even fewer people named unequal rights of property ownership and inheritance (9 percent), unequal access to education (7 percent), and too few women in influential positions in government (7 percent) as priorities needing urgent government attention.

“A slim majority (53 percent) of citizens say violence against women is a “somewhat common” (28 percent) or “very common” (25 percent) occurrence in their community. More than eight in 10 (85 percent) Basotho say it is “never” justified for a man to physically discipline his wife. About two in 10 think it is “sometimes” (11 percent) or “always” (4 percent) justified.

“A slim majority (53 percent) of Basotho say domestic violence should be treated as a criminal matter rather than as a private matter to be resolved within the family.

“Almost six in 10 respondents (56 percent) consider it “somewhat likely” (29 percent) or “very likely” (27 percent) that a woman will be criticised or harassed if she reports gender-based violence to the authorities. But most citizens (79 percent) say the police are likely to take cases of GBV seriously,” Afrobarometer found.

The research institute concludes by stating that while legal measures such as the drafting of the Counter Domestic Violence Bill are welcome, Lesotho should also consider introducing educational programmes to raise public awareness about GBV.

“While activists welcome the Counter Domestic Violence Bill, this should be augmented by education and awareness raising. The stigmatisation of victims must be addressed, and communities should play their role of protecting the vulnerable members in their midst,” Afrobarometer states.

Incidentally, the United States (US) government considers the enactment of the Counter Domestic Violence Bill as a precondition for the release of a US$300 million (M5, 4 billion) grant to help the Lesotho government bankroll socio-economic projects to improve the lives of Basotho.

The US and Lesotho governments signed the lucrative US$300 million second compact under the US-sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) in May 2022.  However, the start date for the compact implementation depends on Prime Minister Sam Matekane’s government meeting the conditions precedent, which include the Bill, MCC CEO, Alice Albright told this publication two months ago.

The Bill is meant to provide for the protection of the rights of victims, and prevention of domestic violence and related matters. It is expected to provide for the implementation of a family court, which will handle cases arising out of family squabbles and also hear cases of domestic violence. It also provides for the establishment of restorative justice councils, where proceedings will be guided by village chiefs.

Shelters for victims will also be established, as well as rehabilitation centres for perpetrators of domestic violence.

The Bill proposes stiff penalties for domestic violence and sexual offences.

The Bill had been approved by the previous National Assembly, but it had not been enacted into law by the time the 10th Parliament was dissolved on 13 July 2022 by His Majesty, King Letsie III, to pave way for elections, which were subsequently held on 7 October.

The bill was then ‘approved’ after parliament was ‘recalled’ in August, following the declaration of a state of emergency to pass it as well as constitutional amendments to facilitate the implementation of Lesotho’s much-delayed multi-sector reforms. However, the ‘laws’ were nullified by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that the state of emergency, the subsequent recall of parliament, and the enactment of laws were invalid.