When Pinky Mothibedi merely looks at a walking stick she becomes filled with fear.

This destitute mother who left her rural home to go in search of work in the city is not neurotic. Her husband beat her so badly with a wooden walking stick that she is now partly disabled.

A recent report states that gender-based violence costs the South African economy up to
R40-billion a year or more than one percent of our GDP. Researchers say it is one of the most expensive public health problems globally, has a fundamental impact on economic growth and the negative effects can span several generations.

The report co-ordinated by the Human and Social Services (HSS) practice of KPMG – with input from Sonke Gender Justice – says the true cost of gender-based violence is much higher than these conservative estimates. But the report says that the cost to the state is so huge it is the equivalent of building half a million RDP houses or providing wage subsidies for all of the currently unemployed youth. The KPMG HSS serves public, private and multi-national organisations in their work to support communities and vulnerable or disadvantaged populations.

While probing the report we also came across a creative arts venture that looks into this social affliction. Pinky Mothibedi’s story is part of the Open Society Foundation’s Moving Walls project. The Foundation has collaborated with Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières and nine international photographers to highlight that violence against women is a universal problem.

Says Pinky Mothibedi: “I have four children. I was married in 1974, and I stayed with my husband for 10 years. He used to drink alcohol. When he was drunk he always liked to fight. If I was to ask what was wrong, he just wouldn’t listen to me. I came to Johannesburg. I was looking for work. I don’t have a place to stay, so I stay here on the floor at the daycare centre, which is also the church. This man used to beat me up until I went to the hospital. He beat me in such a way that it was just so bad. He hit me on my spine. Since then I can’t carry heavy things and do hard work. He used to hit me every weekend with the walking stick. When I see a walking stick I get very scared because I used to live with the fear that he made me feel with his walking stick. The kids would always cry. I realised that I am going to die if I stayed, so I ran away.

“I don’t know where he lives or what he does right now. The house that we had built together, he burnt it. Until now, even when I go home to go and see the kids, I am still not free because I know he could come in any time. I can’t talk any more, it’s just too much, there is too much that he’s done. Most of it just breaks my heart.”

unnamedThe Open Society Foundation Moving Walls project featured nine international Photographers, including South African Jodi Bieber. She says:

“For some, making these portraits was part of the healing process; for others, the stories were an attempt to save other women. The more these issues are discussed openly, the more women will no longer be willing to tolerate abuse. By speaking out about their experiences and sharing their stories, these women have exposed the unacceptable abuse that exists in relationships. I believe that each time this work is exhibited it opens a door through which another victim can walk to safety. This is not just a South African story.”

The KPMG study provides an illustration of the minimum economic impact of GBV in South Africa. Given significant data gaps and limitations, it estimates the cost of GBV to be between R 28.4-billion, and R 42.4-billion, or from 0.9% to 1.3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the data, “this estimate appears woefully short, when compared with international studies, particularly as the prevalence of violence in South Africa is widely believed to be higher than in many of the comparative countries which have performed similar cost estimate studies.”

Another woman who formed part of the Open Society Foundation Moving Walls photo essay is Roslyn Bucher. She says:

“Unfortunately, last Wednesday night when I got home, if one can call it home, I was locked out by my husband. I’ve had this problem since the start, so it’s been eleven years of nonsense. My husband is an extremely abusive man. He’s aggressive. I think I’ve suffered every form of abuse from him with the exception of sexual abuse. Well, I mean it’s strangling, it’s kicking, it’s punching, he burns me with cigarettes, this sort of business. After the abuse he becomes very, very quiet. It’s nerve racking. You don’t know from moment to moment. You don’t know what is going to happen next. He’s threatened to kill me more times than I care to remember.

“I tried to get out of it but always he followed me, begging me to come back. This guy has had money at times, but he refuses to provide a home. He is a mechanic, and we are presently living in the workshop. I’m not there during the day. I sat in the Laundromat day in and day out for four months. I am actually an institution in this place. At least it was a place of safety. My confidence, my self-esteem, everything about me in comparison to ten years ago…I’m a shadow of my former self, if I may put it that way.”

Violence against women in South Africa is not a homogenous phenomenon. Each woman’s experience of violence varies as a result of her status and some groups of women are more vulnerable and experience higher prevalence such as older women, women with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) women, and women refugees. While the experience of violence varies, what is clear is that the problem of violence is significant and widespread in South Africa.

And the cost is high…. In general it is represented by lower productivity, reduced output and exports, and reduced savings and investments. Some specifics from the KPMG study of how we pay for this phenomenon as a society:

  • Many women are prevented from working by their partner even when the family badly needs the cash
  • Women suffering from domestic violence have significantly lower ability to turn up for work on time, to work productively and to stay in the job
  • Employers must hire replacement staff to account for absenteeism and also face additional search, hiring and retraining costs for replacing employees who are victims of violence
  • There is a link between women experiencing violence and lower income levels. Women who are subjected to this trauma tend to earn as much as 35% less then others
  • Additionally, the reduction in output is even larger because of the economic multiplier. A rand lost represents more than just a rand. It includes the lost savings and spending that is passed on to others

And we don’t even know the extent of the problem yet. The conclusion of the study states that:

“We still have much more to understand about the true costs of violence in South Africa. These preliminary results should be treated with caution: further research is required to obtain more comprehensive estimates.”

While comprehensive national studies are limited, a review of the literature reveals the following shocking findings for South Africa:

  • In a study conducted in Gauteng in 2010, it was found that over half of the women sampled had experienced GBV at least once in their lifetime.
  • In 2009 research found that 50.3% of female homicides were a result of intimate partner violence.
  • 42.3% of a sample of men working in municipalities in Cape Town in 2006 reported that they had perpetrated physical violence against a partner in the last 10 years

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Photos by Jodi Bieber