On Valentine’s Day, when the world celebrates the positive aspects of sexual love, it is beyond disturbing to realise that, by the time you have read this article, at least two women will have been raped in South Africa. That is because, on average, a woman is raped every four minutes in the country.
In fact, various media reports last year stated that Interpol named South Africa as the world’s rape capital, and said women were more likely to be raped than educated. A 2009 Medical Research Council study found that one in four South African men admitted to raping a woman.
Despite these frightening statistics, experts said while rape in South Africa is common, it barely makes the news. The last massive public outcry was about a year ago, when a 17-year-old mentally disabled girl from Soweto was gang raped by young men who videotaped her and offered her 25 cents to keep quiet.
However, the recent death of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, who was gang raped, mutilated and left for dead, has stirred the wrath of South Africans frustrated by a national epidemic of sexual violence.
Yale World Fellow, Sisonke Msimang from Sonke Gender Justice Network expressed the emotions many South Africans feel: “I will cry, as I have been already this morning. And maybe, I will begin to feel my way out of the lurching, heavy knowing after I have spoken with others. With the mothers and the sisters, the brothers and fathers – those like me, who have girls … Anene was raped and mutilated because she was a girl. It was her vagina and her breasts that they wanted to destroy. It was her walk and her talk. It was her girl-ness. These parts of her were broken and sliced and pulled apart, not by monsters, but by friends. Each of her ten fingers were broken.”
Academics speak out
Academics have also added their voice to the chorus of outcries, addressing various topics related to rape and violence against women in South Africa.
Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor Prof Mandla Makhanya said he felt absolute disdain and contempt for the scourge of rape and harassment to which the women and children of South Africa are exposed. He said surely South Africans cannot be proud when the rest of the world views us only through this lens because this is what they are reading about in the news.
Addressing Unisa staff he said: “The latest very cruel and deplorable case of a young 17-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Bredasdorp enticed me to emphasise to all of you that we need to take a stand against this unacceptable behaviour. We all need to pause and consciously reflect on the values of respect for life, and the dignity of each fellow human. We are all part of civil society and rape and violence affects every one of us, no one is exempt. We cannot sit back and wait for others to set the foundation for change – that role belongs to all of us.”
Addressing the problem
Gender unit director at the Medical Research Council Prof Rachel Jewkes said rape is about a culture where young men feel they have a right to a woman’s body. She said almost half of the gang rapes in South Africa were prearranged, the victim was also mutilated and the attack was “virtually always an act of revenge by a man who knows her”.
Eusebius McKaiser, an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics, and a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 said Booysen’s case has shattered the silence around the country’s rape crisis, which seldom gets the national attention it deserves.
He believes that South Africa needs to address the factors that partly explain why rape is so prevalent; “after all, no one is born a rapist”. Factors, he said, stem from not dealing with the violence during apartheid which became normative and has remained that way, inequality in a deeply divided society, the lack of better and healthier male role models for boys and young men, and the weakness of the country’s criminal justice system, with low conviction rates for sexual violence.
Christo Cilliers, a health expert in Unisa’s Communications Science Department, said, “unfortunately”, boys learn their first modes of behaviour at home. “We all know that gender (masculinity) is constructed – so boys learn how to act, and re-act towards women from what they learn at home. Men in general and fathers, specifically, should be aware that their sons learn from them.”
He also said it was important for South African police to be trained as experts in dealing with rape and sexual violence. “Police members dealing with rapes should be trained as counsellors in trauma and rape counselling.”
Advocating for special courts
The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) advocated for special courts for rape victims to be established immediately, and said that the high prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual violence raise fundamental questions about the Criminal Justice System. The council’s spokesperson, Nomboniso Gasa, said: “We need to look at the establishment of special courts to deal with sexual violence, to deal with domestic and family violence … The Government must think very hard.”
Professor Amanda Gouws from the University of Stellenbosch agreed that a sexual offences court was needed to tackle the rape epidemic in South Africa.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Justice Navi Pillay urged for a more comprehensive approach to tackling the problem. “There is a need for very strong signals to be sent to all rapists that sexual violence is absolutely unacceptable and that they will have to face the consequences of their terrible acts. The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end.”
She said while there were legal frameworks and some initiatives, much more needed to be done. “I am deeply disturbed by the fact that arrest and conviction rates of rape perpetrators remain extremely low. This is not only a shocking denial of justice for the thousands of victims, but also a factor that has contributed to the normalisation of rape and violence against women in South African society.”
Pillay added: “Violence against women is not only a human rights violation, it is also a brutal manifestation of wider discrimination against women, which is to be understood against the background of subordination of women within the patriarchal system that still exists in South Africa … South Africa’s Constitutional Court has emphasised that there is an obligation on the State to protect women against violence.”
Read End culture of rape in 2013 by Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege.
Read Here’s what we can do about rape by Yusuf Abramjee, Prime Media’s head of news and LeadSA chairperson.
*Compiled by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester and Rajiv Kamal