The public holiday, marked every year on Aug. 9 in South Africa, commemorates a historic protest of unjust laws under the then-apartheid regime.
"It comes from the call to action in 1956 by 20,000 women who marched onto the union buildings in Pretoria, singing, 'Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo!' 'You strike a woman, you strike a rock,'" said Caroline Peters, a women's rights activist.
While democratic South Africa now has a progressive constitution guaranteeing gender equality, Peters said an increase in the number of female homicide victims in the first part of this year means it's not a happy holiday.
"As a gender-based violence activist who's been working in communities for 30 years, I've never seen the level of violence. The violence on women's bodies has escalated. … I almost feel like we've got nothing to celebrate," she said.
Police statistics for the first three months of 2023 showed 10,512 rapes and 969 murders of women. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said South Africa has levels of gender-based violence that "are comparable to countries that are at war," referring to it as "a pandemic."
Lirandzu Themba, spokesperson for the ministry of police, said the South African Police Services, or SAPS, are very concerned about the safety of women.
"The SAPS is upscaling its operations to trace gender-based violence perpetrators, arresting serial offenders and rapists, as well as ongoing dialogues with men in various communities," Themba said.
But Mara Glennie, who runs the free crisis hotline TEARS, noted that women who report rapes are not always assisted adequately.
"Women who go to the police station are frequently asked to go home and make right with their partners rather than given the help they need," she said.
Asked why gender-based violence is such a scourge in South Africa, Sis'Mantoa Selepe, a gender-equality activist, said current socioeconomic malaise, as well as the brutal history of apartheid, play a part.
"I think with these men in South Africa we are dealing with generational anger that is cascaded down to generation after generation due to poverty and due to the injustice of the past as well," Selepe said.
It is vital the government invest in educating men about gender equality in order to challenge patriarchal norms, she added.