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Minister Zulu wrong. South Africa ranks high, but not ‘number one in the killing of women’

  • While launching a plan to stop the abuse of alcohol and drugs, Zulu said South Africa was “number one” in the world for the killing of women.

  • The WHO’s data on female interpersonal violence – women killed by another individual – draws on a number of international databases and adjusts for countries’ population sizes and age distributions.

  • According to the most recent numbers available, in 2016 South Africa had the fourth highest rate of women killed, after Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho.

The murder of women has again made headlines in South Africa. This follows a number of gruesome deaths during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown. 

South Africa’s minister of social development, Lindiwe Zulu, appeared on the country’s national broadcaster on 25 June 2020 to launch a plan to combat alcohol and substance abuse. 

During the interview, Zulu claimed that South Africa is “number one in the killing of women”. (Note: Africa Check contacted Zulu’s office to ask where this information came from but has received no response.)

South Africa’s latest crime statistics show that 21,022 people were murdered in 2018/19. Of these, 2,771 victims were adult women.

Does this make South Africa “number one in the killing of women” internationally? 

WHO calculates ‘interpersonal violence’ death rates

Chandré Gould, a senior researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies’ Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, described Zulu’s claim as “nonsense”. 

“I don’t know what data she could possibly use to decide that,” she said. 

The most recent database comparing death rates in different countries is from the World Health Organization, or WHO. 

Stephanie Burrows, a technical officer in the WHO’s Violence and Injury Prevention programme, previously directed Africa Check to the organisation’s statistics on deaths caused by “interpersonal violence”. These are deaths caused by violence between individuals.

The 2016 estimates were calculated for 183 countries. They are based on a number of sources including crime statistics, data from the WHO’s mortality database and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s global studies on homicide. Estimates are modeled for countries where data isn’t available or is of low quality.

The data shows that India recorded the highest number of women and girls killed due to interpersonal violence, at 13,093. South Africa was ranked ninth, with an estimated 3,444 deaths. 

Highest number of female deaths due to interpersonal violence in 2016
CountryNumber of deaths
United States of America4,219
South Africa3,444

Source: World Health Organization

But these numbers do not provide insight into the relative risk faced by women in these countries. To understand that, you need to take into account the size of a country’s population. 

This is done by calculating the death rate, which allows for accurate comparisons between countries. It is stated as the number of deaths per 100,000 women. 

South Africa ranked fourth in 2016

Honduras, a country in Central America, had the highest female interpersonal death rate at 32.7 per 100,000 women. Jamaica was second (15.5) and Lesotho was third (15.4).

South Africa ranked fourth, with a female interpersonal violence death rate of 12.5. This was 4.8 times the global average rate of 2.6. 

(Note: The WHO advises using “age-standardised rates” for global comparisons. This rate adjusts for differences in the age distribution of the population, assuming a standard population for all countries.)

Highest female interpersonal violence death rates in 2016
CountryDeath rate per 100,000
South Africa12.5
El Salvador10.6
Trinidad and Tobago10.5
Ivory Coast10.3

Source: World Health Organization

Conclusion: South Africa not ranked ‘number one in killing of women’

South Africa’s minister of social development, Lindiwe Zulu, claimed on national TV that the country was “number one in the killing of women”. She has not replied to requests for the source of her information. 

The most recent data from the World Health Organization shows this is incorrect.

According to the latest data available, in 2016 Honduras had the highest female interpersonal violence death rate in the world. South Africa was ranked fourth. 

This in no way suggests that the country doesn’t have a serious problem. Understanding the scale is important when coming up with responses.

Further Reading