Rape: South Africa’s Other Epidemic

I would hate to be a woman in South Africa. That’s a bold statement, I know, but let me explain. Even before this trip, I knew a little about this country’s history of marginalizing its women. For my final in a class I took on social movements last semester, I wrote a 14 page essay on the impact of the anti-apartheid movement on the role of women in South Africa – about how many lacked basic rights before apartheid’s fall, and how even after their pivotal role in the movement, recognition and elevated level in society were not quick to follow. This is not an issue unique to South Africa, but it is an issue all the same, and now, after spending almost two months here, I am again made aware of the fact that there are still many problems here surrounding feminism and women’s rights.

We talk a lot about the HIV/AIDS epidemic here in South Africa, and in many other countries across the African continent as well. But there’s another epidemic, and it’s just as ugly and creating just as many victims. Rape – or as I’ve learned as my time as an intern at the Sonke Gender Justice Network, any type of gender-based violence – is another huge issue facing this country. Quite simply, this is a country that is at war with its women, prompting the ANC Women’s League to go so far as describing the extreme gender-based violence running rampant in the country as “femicide.”

While extreme, the use of the word femicide is not entirely incorrect. Research done by the Medical Research Council, in a study of data between 1999 and 2009, shows that the rate of female homicides in South Africa was five times higher than the global rate. On average, a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by her partner or relative. One third of all South African men have admitted to committing rape. Think about how many more there must be who would never admit it. In the halls of Sonke Gender Justice Network, where I’m lucky enough to be working this summer, there are entire bulletins filled with newspaper clippings concerning these very issues, reminding the employees what we’re fighting for, or more importantly, what we’re fighting against.

To truly understand the epidemic of violence against women in South Africa, I’ll ground this issue in an actual experience I’ve had this summer. Many conversations I’ve had with people here confirm regressive views on women and their rights. For example, a man charged with showing us around Sonke’s health clinic in the township of Gugulethu, made casual conversation about the not-so-casual topic of rape and where the culpability in those situation lies. Even if it was not his intention, what he was telling us lets me know that he supports victim-blaming. He talked about how rape and sexual assault is often the girl’s fault, and as he spoke, I saw at least two other men in our group nodding their heads in agreement. “They drink too much,” he said. “So much that they don’t even know where they are.”

…So what? The only cause of rape is rapists. It has nothing to do with how short their skirt may be, how much alcohol they’ve consumed, or whether or not they’ve been flirting and sending “mixed signals”. (Hint: there is no such thing as a mixed signal, there is only consent and lack of consent). There are obviously steps young women can take to avoid as many of these situations as possible, but it is ultimately never their fault. Society is teaching women “Don’t get raped” rather than teaching men “Don’t rape.”

Signs condemning victim blaming

Signs condemning victim blaming

In fact, he says that they give girls female condoms and encourage them to put the on in the morning, just in case they get raped.

Just in case. Think about that, really. Because I heard it a week ago and it’s still unsettling, still making me uncomfortable. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea that there are women and girls who expect rape, prepare for it even.

The problem is not everyone finds it unsettling. Many don’t even find it weird. Much like HIV/AIDS ten years ago, people don’t want to discuss it. Specifically, important people, people who could actually make a difference and have an impact, don’t want to discuss it. Earlier this year, South African athlete Oscar Pistorious, the incredibly tenacious runner who inspired thousands world-over as he competed in last year’s Olympics on his mechanical legs, murdered his girlfriend in their home. Coincidentally, the same day, South African President Jacob Zuma gave his State of the Nation speech. He decried the rampant violence against women, without announcing any serious new measures to fight gender-based violence. It’s hard to fight a war with a government that is more interested in words and not actions. A government that, in fact, is led by a man that was charged with rape in 2005 and put on trial for his crime. That feels relevant, doesn’t it?

I know that it’s unfair to make broad generalizations about the entire South African male population, and I’ve tried not to do that, especially because I’ve met many great men this summer who denounce the old-fashioned patriarchal views and are determined to fight for a better, more equitable society for their daughters (and sons). I know that rape happens all around me in the United States, too, and that gender-based violence is a huge issue there as well, especially when it comes to hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. I know that South Africa is a country crying out for a real conversation about violence against women and rape, and I know that, eventually, that conversation will happen. But until it does, I know that, as much as my friends and I joke about how we’ll one day come back to live in South Africa and enjoy the beaches, mild winters, and malva pudding, until there are some major societal changes in this wonderful, confusing country, I probably won’t.

History Lessons

Image

Last week, in our group reflection session, I raised the question, “What is something you were not expecting to get out of this trip that you actually have?” I was interested to hear everyone’s answers because, regardless of situation, I always find this a difficult question to answer, since it requires a level of introspection before and during an experience that I usually lack. I was looking forward to many things about this trip – including exploring Johannesburg and Cape Town, making new friends, and having my first full-time internship; however, something I completely undervalued at the beginning was how much I would appreciate the educational aspect of this experience.

In Johannesburg, we had a whirlwind week spent delving into South African culture and history, trying to learn as much as we could through museums and tours. The history crash course was amazing, and I enjoyed being able to hear many different stories and perspectives on apartheid, whether it was through the interactive exhibits at the Apartheid museum or going through the township of Alexandra with one of its former residents. Even now, some of my favorite moments come on Monday evenings when we have speakers come and share their experiences. So far, my favorites have been Minister Paul Verryn, a former anti-apartheid activist who also preaches at the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, which doubles as a place of refuge to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees under his direction, and Denis Goldberg, one of the primary white activists who worked alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid. We were also able to meet with the legendary Allister Sparks, who as a writer, journalist and political commentator, was very involved with the anti-apartheid struggle.

In fact, it was after our conversation with Mr. Sparks that I committed myself to journaling this summer, lest I forget all of the great things I’ve been learning. Now I find myself scribbling in my Moleskine all throughout the day, capturing the many different comments and statistics I encounter about South African life. I expected to increase my knowledge of South Africa and its fascinating, torrid history just by virtue of living and working here for two months, but there’s something else I’ve been learning a lot about that I was not expecting to, and that frankly I’m a little embarrassed to admit – American history.

One of the things that drew me specifically to the DukeEngage Cape Town program was the opportunity to examine the parallels between the United States and South Africa, along with the existing differences – the most obvious similarity being the countries’ shared history of racial segregation. In learning more about the horrors of apartheid, I was surprised by the amount I was also learning about the American civil rights movement. I knew (or thought I knew) a lot about civil rights already, having grown up in an African-American household that always emphasized our culture and roots, but time and time again on this trip I’ve encountered new information regarding a struggle I thought I knew so much about. Before this trip, I had always thought of Rosa Parks as the courageous woman who refused to move to the back of the bus, but knew nothing of how she had been at the forefront of various civil rights and feminist movements for decades prior. I also made it through my entire high school career without any mention of the Wilmington race riots or the Greensboro sit-ins, even though they were both key events in American history.

I have to attribute a lot of the knowledge I’m gaining to the incredible Duke staff accompanying us on our trip. Our much-loved leaders include Dr. William Chafe (Bill), a history professor, Dr. Robert Korstad (Bob), who teaches in both public policy and history, and Anne-Marie Angelo (Ama), who just graduated with her Ph.D in history. It’s a wonderful experience to be able to receive this wisdom from people who have actually experienced some of the things we learn about and are still actively engaged in the conversations surrounding them. For example, Bill, who we spent the first four weeks of the trip with, doesn’t just write books about gender and racial equality – he started the women’s studies department at Vassar and actually participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964. And you can watch a video here of Bob explaining why he recently got arrested for civil disobedience as a part of the ‘Moral Monday’ campaign in North Carolina, which protests the recent Republican-backed regressive agenda on social programs, voting rights, education and tax policy – actions that all disproportionately hurt the poor and minorities.

Image

Shoutout to the great Bill Chafe, aka Colonel Sanders from KFC

Thanks to them, I am getting my questions answered, the gaps in my knowledge filled in, and encouragement when I ask in bewilderment “How could I not have known about this?” All of this goes to show that there truly is always more to learn, and even while learning about another country’s rich history, I can’t forget to acknowledge my own.