The Just Gender Project

The Strengthened Practice through Collaboration – project, housed at the University of Pretoria and funded by Irish Aid, South Africa, seeks to develop new avenues and means through to work toward the attainment of more open, inclusive, and democratic societies. Within the socio-political context of Southern Africa, and specifically in South Africa and Zimbabwe where gender-based violence and gender inequality remain particularly worrying, the project seeks to maximise the quality of the impact of the work and contributions made by those working in the field of social justice.

Strengthened Practice brings together several Irish Aid funded organisations to critically reflect on processes of knowledge and evidence production within the field of GBV and gender in/equality. While those working in the social justice, GBV, and gender equality sector are constantly engaged with evidence relating to their field of work, there seems to be insufficient time and resources to enter into rigorous and critical reflections regarding the methodologies and dominant theoretical frameworks used, and little to no time to explore alternative ways to approach evidence. The Strengthened Practice – project will, over the next 5 years, work to create a space to allow partners the opportunity to explore possible new ways of interacting with evidence, reflect on the challenges faced in practice, and will provide partners with the possibility to interact with and learn from experts in the fields of policy making and advocacy, specifically that relating to social justice. In sum, this will be an informal movement for skilled practice and advocacy, with a focus on valuing qualitative data.

In a context of political uncertainty, policy ambiguity, and a fractured gender and social justice environment, a safer space for partners to critically reflect on their work, and be invigorated and motivated is both necessary and welcomed. It is also in this context where the project makes an innovative and novel contribution. While, in the past, projects have established means of tracking the activities in particular sectors, this project places much emphasis on the notion of close collaboration that uses a reflective approach to strengthen practice in the social justice sector. The project initial span is 5 years (2017 – 2021), during which time ongoing platforms and interventions will enable the partners to undertake their work more effectively, critically, and efficiently.

Owing to the enduring nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender has had to adapt this project work to meet the shifting landscape of gender justice work, and to sustain connections and working relationships with its project partners. For more information on some of the ways in which we have adapted the Just Gender Project work, visit the tab titled “Gender Justice in the Era of Covid-19”.

Our Approach

The project is underpinned by a theory of change which suggests that, by providing opportunities and support for a) evidence-informed collective reflection, b) focussed use of methodologies for interventions, and c) innovative ways of understanding and using evidence, partners, programmes and key stakeholders will be able to increase the effectiveness of their work on gender in/equality.

The engagement between the CSA&G and the Irish Embassy’s partners in Southern Africa will initially span 5 years, during which time ongoing platforms and interventions will enable the partners to undertake their work more effectively, critically, and efficiently. This strategic collaboration will make use of three different but interlinked components. The three strands, or components, are aimed toward constant interaction with and reflection on the partners’ practices in terms of the conceptualisation of their work, the critical and innovative analysis of evidence in the context of their social justice work, and their strategic advocacy in the communities in which they work.

The three strands are:

    1. Partner forums where partners are able to critically and collectively reflect on challenges in their practice and engage with new forms of evidence and trends.
    2. A partner repository that enables partners to constantly interact with one another as well as with relevant information and evidence. The repository will be hosted online and provide partners with, among other things, access to webinars, newly released research in the area of social justice, and a boutique request service that allows partners to specifically request the CSA&G to assist with desk research on a particular topic.
    3. An evidence-based strand that focusses on innovative ways to approach evidence gathering, analysing, and engaging with data in the area of GBV and gender inequality. Within this strand partners are encouraged and enabled, by the CSA&G, to critically reflect on current practices and think of alternative ways to approach various aspects of evidence gathering and analysing. Finally, the CSA&G will also initiate research projects with a focus on GBV and social justice to further expand this strand and support the partners.

Gender-based Violence in Southern Africa

It has been apparent for some time now that there is a widening gap between the lived lives of ordinary South Africans and the rights that are promised to citizens in the South African Constitution and in other legal frameworks, as collated in the Appendix. This gap, which Pithouse (2016:43) refers to as “only protected on paper”, has prompted a series of questions and critiques that speak to both the real and imagined forms of citizenship that have emerged in post-apartheid South Africa. Among the most pressing of these issues is that of the state and civil society’s understanding of and interventions regarding GBV and violence against women and children.

The notion of violence has long been one of the most central themes in the theorisation and analysis of womanhood and gender. These violent acts have taken myriad forms across the world. Ranging from domestic abuse, rape as a weapon of war, female genital mutilation, and honour killings to corrective rape, arranged and forced marriage, and human trafficking, GBV has long been present, but it is only in the last century that shifting understandings of human rights and personhood enabled the concept of gendered violence as an act of violation.

It is partly as a result of this fluid nature of GBV – the way it has shifted throughout history – that narrowing the concept to a single fixed definition is nearly impossible. GBV is anchored, on the one hand, in the particular hetero-patriarchal ideologies that have dominated large parts of the world over the past centuries. It is also, however, a concept that is embedded within the particular socio-political and historical conditions of any given community, and South Africa is no exception.

In South Africa GBV has been intimately linked to the specific ways in which race, class, and gender were constructed as a result of colonialism and apartheid. Gender dynamics take specific forms in colonial and post-colonial contexts (Connell: 2011:107). According to Connell, colonialism itself was a gendered act, carried out by imperial workforces (overwhelmingly men) drawn from masculinised occupations. Rape of women in colonised societies was part of conquest. Brutality was built into colonial societies, and the restructuring of gender orders of colonial societies was also a normal part of the making of colonial economies – incorporating men into imperial economies as slaves, or as indentured or migrant labour (Ibid), and in the process creating inhumane and demeaning treatment of men, the effects of which are felt today in masculine anger and violence.

Despite the influences of colonialism and apartheid on the particular spatial, cultural, and societal structure of South Africa, the South African state is yet to formalise an own understanding of GBV. The state also has never clearly and unambiguously defined what is meant by the term GBV or, as it is often used by the South African government, violence against women and children.

Regardless of the specific set of circumstances in which an act of GBV is committed, it is important to emphasise that GBV does not only refer to physical violence, but rather to a set of violent actions or threats which may include physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or other violations. D’Cruze and Roa (2005: 5) note that defining violence is a difficult task. Feminist scholars in particular have been concerned with efforts that seek to narrow and limit the definition of ‘violence’. Attempts to define and describe violence, particularly those forms of violence that result very directly from hegemonic power relations, are made more difficult by the interconnectedness of different forms of violence.

When a person experiences sexual, emotional and economic violence – sometimes overlapping, while at other times not – it becomes difficult to demarcate and understand the precise and intimate ways in which these abuses speak to and inform one another. Yet, it is crucial that we describe and define what is meant by GBV, even if such an attempt can never provide a fully holistic and inclusive definition.

In light of this lack of a localised definition, but also in conversation with a global discourse of human rights and GBV, it is helpful to turn to the definitions that have been outlined by other bodies and that are often used by civil rights organisations. One of the most widely used definitions of GBV is that of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) which states that:

Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life … Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but is not limited to the following: physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and in the community, including battery, sexual abuse of female children … dowry related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation … sexual harassment and intimidation at work, trafficking women and forced prostitution … and violence … perpetrated or condoned by the state.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action expanded on this definition, specifying that violence against women includes: violations of the rights of women in situations of armed conflict, including systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy; forced sterilisation, forced abortion, coerced or forced use of contraceptives; prenatal sex selection and female infanticide. It also recognized the particular vulnerabilities of women belonging to minorities: the elderly and the displaced; indigenous, refugee and migrant communities; the disabled; and women living in impoverished rural or remote areas, or in detention (UNFPA, 2013: 6).

It is noticeable thus far that these and many other definitions of GBV are strongly focussed on violence against women and children. This is hardly surprising as the majority of GBV is committed against women and children. The UNFPA (2013) elaborates on the vulnerability of women and girls as follows:

Women and adolescent girls, not only are they at high risk of GBV, they also suffer exacerbated consequences as compared with what men endure. As a result of gender discrimination and their lower socio-economic status, women have fewer options and less resources at their disposal to avoid or escape abusive situations and to seek justice. They also suffer consequences [in terms of their sexual and reproductive health], including forced pregnancies, unsafe abortions and resulting deaths, traumatic fistula, and higher risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

While it is significant that women and girls are often more vulnerable to GBV, it is equally important to extend our understandings of GBV to include men, boys, and gender non-conforming persons.

In a description that includes these individuals, Bloom (2008: 14) describes GBV as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between the two genders, within the context of a specific society”.

Bloom points out an important aspect of GBV in this description in highlighting the notion of normative gender roles and the expectations attached to these roles. GBV, when seen in this way, does not only extend to women and girls, but to any violent act or threat that is underpinned by a person’s gender identity or the expression thereof, or by sexual orientation.

Emphasising the idea of normative gender roles is of dual importance in this regard. It firstly points to the fact that GBV is not necessarily tied to the idea of the biological female but rather to that of ideologically supported gender roles; it secondly underlines the importance of grasping the ways in which binary gender categories have been constructed to reproduce and reinforce very particular relations of power.

It is useful to turn to some of the theories that allow us to understand the construction of masculinity and femininity before continuing to explore the particular social dynamics that have assisted in the construction of these concepts in South Africa.

There is a seeming contradiction that frequently surfaces in discussions about GBV, rights and justice. There is, on the one hand, the humanistic appeal to universal rights that would allow for all human beings to share in the same sets of rights and privileges. On the other hand, there is the call to anchor these rights within the local. In a less abstract form this tension could also be seen as that between theory and the day-to-day lived lives of those to whom this theory applies. While it is certainly true that this tension has long been one of the issues that those who work in the field of social justice have struggled with the most, it is not an insurmountable tension. We should not view these two positions – that of the universal and the local – as contradictory, but rather we should understand them as existing in a dialectical tension. Such a dialectical tension enables us to imagine the possibility of a synthesis – as the final section of this monograph shows – rather than an impasse between two contradictory concepts. However, before reaching any kind of synthesis, it is necessary to expand our understanding of gender and gendered relationships even further. The previous section spoke to the ways in which gender has come to be considered a social construct. Like sexual orientation, gender is seen to be the product of various ideological constructions that uphold certain power structures in society. How gender is constructed and thought of only tells half the story of GBV in our society. Much of the rest of this story is found in the broader structures of our society and the social drives that enable GBV.

The topic of one’s gender and sexuality is often considered to be private. Even referencing these issues has been, and continues to be, taboo in many spaces. However, men and women’s relations are not only produced and lived out in private spaces. Characteristics of the broader society also influence, as they are influenced by, what happens in personal or private spaces, regarding the often violent ways in which tensions in ‘private lives’ are played out. Jewkes (2000) says:

In South Africa rape and sexual coercion form one part of the broader problem of gender-based violence which pervades society … one of the consequences of decades of state sponsored violence of apartheid and colonialism (with armed resistance) is that physical violence has become for many people a first-line strategy to resolve conflict and gain ascendency (Jewkes, as quoted by Kometsi 2004: 32).

Statistics show that the current levels of GBV in South Africa, regardless of whether or not the physical act of violation occurs within an intimate or domestic relationship, are so significantly high that we can hardly consider this to be anything but a societal problem. While statistics vary, research conducted by Gender Links found that up to 77% of women in Limpopo and 51% of women in Gauteng have experienced GBV in some or other form (Gender Links, 2012). These numbers are confirmed by another study, conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), which found that more than 50% of women in Gauteng have experienced intimate partner violence. Alarmingly, more than 80% of the men who partook in this research reported to have transgressed against their intimate partners (Institute for Security Studies, 2011).

As the South African government itself notes, it is hard to determine the specific number of instances of domestic violence as domestic violence is not considered in and of itself to be a criminal category (Parliament of South Africa, 2013). The same is true of various hate crimes which makes it hard to determine, for example, how widespread instances of homophobic attacks are. This means that the motivation for an act of violence is not necessarily recorded by the police. If a lesbian women is murdered, for example, a case of murder will be opened without any specific reference to the fact that the crime was motived by a belief, for example, in heterosexuality or that the crime was intended to ‘correct’ some form of sexual or gender transgression.

Gender Justice in the Era of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic began in March of 2020, emerging into a global context already characterised by widespread and ever-deepening gendered, racialised, classed and geopolitical inequalities. These power differentials, enforced by intersecting ideologies of hate and discrimination, and shaped by forces including neocolonialism, neoliberalism and new forms of imperialism (often disguised as ‘globalisation’) have been rendered transparent – even amplified – during the pandemic.

Where ‘gender’ is concerned, disparities in the ways in which different people have experienced, and been impacted by Covid-19 are increasingly evident: For women and members of LGBTQIA+ communities, this strange and uncertain era has been particularly impactful and difficult, intensified in contexts in which men (and masculinist regimes) continue to shape civic living and social realities. The gendered nuances of pandemic realities are explicit across different spheres of life, where (for example) frontline work has been performed mostly by women, where women have assumed additional responsibilities for care work and homeschooling as populations continue to work remotely, and where significant increases in gender-based violence have burdened already-overloaded healthcare and support networks. For women and many LGBTQIA+ people, staying at home has not offered a viable and safe strategy for protecting against viral infection, because these spaces are often characterised by high levels of abuse and violence in patriarchal systems (mirroring the broader structural issues that continue to pervade societies across the world).

At the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, our work in the areas of social and gender justice has thus assumed even more meaning and importance. The Just Gender Project, as one of our flagship projects, continues to be positioned to make valuable contributions to existing gender justice networks, research, policy-making and advocacy. However, we have had to adapt our work in order to meet the shifting landscape of gender justice and academic research more broadly, and to sustain important working relationships with our project partners. Remote working conditions, accompanied by heavy restrictions on local and international travel, has meant that traditional meetings and partner forums are (for the time being) no longer viable. On the Just Gender project, we have thus shifted most of our work into online spaces, whilst continuing to publish online and in academic journals. For more information about upcoming online events and audible episodes of our online work, visit our social media pages and check this website for regular updates and digital invitations. Alternatively, connect with us by sending an email to, or by sending a message to us through the communication function on this website.

For more information about the Covid-19 pandemic, and its gendered effects, consult the following virtual resources:

COVID-19 South African Resource Portal

Updated statistical information on Covid-19:

Zduńczyk, K., Brown, K., Gasela, B., Tyrrell., R. J., & Kimmie, Z. (2020). Human Rights Diagnosis: Community Advice Offices and COVID-19. Foundation for Human Rights.