Women turn to guns to fight rape, murder scourge in SA

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With the help of an instructor (L) and of a mock pistol a woman learns to control her weapon during training organised by the women empowerment group Girls on Fire, in Midrand.
With the help of an instructor (L) and of a mock pistol a woman learns to control her weapon during training organised by the women empowerment group Girls on Fire, in Midrand.
MARCO LONGARI / AFP
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa has compared the levels of sexual violence seen in South Africa to those suffered in a country at war.
  • Some women have now turned to learning how to use a gun as a means of self-defence.
  • The association Gun Owners South Africa offers training to equip women with immediate self-defence skills in a dangerous situation.


For the dozens of women training at a shooting range near Johannesburg, learning how to use a gun has become a means of protection in a country where a woman is murdered every three hours.

For the first time in her life, Ntando Mthembu holds a revolver in her hands. Without hesitating she fires 10 bullets towards a cardboard target.

Last November, Mthembu's cousin, left alone in a house for several hours, was gang-raped and murdered.

"Before it happens to me, I want to be prepared," says 33-year-old Mthembu.

South Africa is among the most violent countries on Earth, and its homicide rates are constantly increasing.

In 2019-2020, the country suffered 21 325 murders, according to the latest annual police report – up 1.4% on the previous year.

And the rate of femicide is five times higher than the global average.

"Women are targets in this country," says Matsie Noge, another participant in the training organised by the association Gun Owners South Africa (GOSA).

She brought along her 24-year-old daughter to the session, reserved exclusively for women. "I should have done it way before, when she was 15," Noge adds.

Every minute counts

"These trainings have a focus on young black women, statistically most impacted by crimes," said Themba Kubheka, who organised the female-only training for GOSA.

"Every lady here knows a lady that has been raped, robbed, mugged. Each of them has a story about crime in this country."

girls on fire
Gun Owners of South Africa's (GOSA) Girls on Fire campaign was created in 2015 to coincide with the 16 days of Activism from the United Nations.

For Kubheka, the point of the training is to equip the women with immediate self-defence skills in a dangerous situation.

"Instead of waiting for help, they need to be able to first respond," he says, noting that the police take an average of 15 minutes to arrive when alerted to a case of assault.

Some 4.5 million guns are used legally in South Africa, with almost the same number again circulating on the black market, according to Gun Free SA, a group which campaigns for arms control.

After shooting three bullets, 32-year-old Nthabiseng Phele rests her revolver on the stand. Her hands are trembling and she is sweating; she is visibly shaken.

She quietly says:

Holding the gun reminded me of the position I was in, the time I wished I had one.

Nine years ago, she was raped in her bedroom by a neighbour who climbed through the window into the house she shared with her parents in the Johannesburg suburbs.

She did not file a criminal complaint against her attacker or receive any support. Her parents admonished her for her own rape, accusing her of bringing shame on the family.

When Phele confided in a friend, he in turn raped her.

National priority

The police receive 110 rape complaints every day. As with the murder rate, those numbers have been rising; 2019 saw a 1.7% increase in sexual assault cases, or 53 293 recorded attacks in total.

Comparing the levels of sexual violence seen in South Africa to those suffered in a country at war, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in late 2019 that tackling the scourge of abuse would be a national priority.

"There is a dark and heavy shadow across our land. Women and children are under siege," he said at the time, describing South Africa as one of "the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman".

Today, Phele is living with a boyfriend, and he knows about her past. Together, they have decided to install a safe at home – so that she can keep a gun.

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