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.

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Organizations Taking Action in Cape Town

Here’s links to all of the great organizations we are working with this summer…check out the websites and learn about the amazing things that they are doing for Cape Town and South Africa!

429058_264908503589691_323232992_nAfrican Arts Institute

The African Arts Institute’s vision is for a vibrant, dynamic and sustainable African creative sector that contributes to development, human rights and democracy on the continent, and projects African aesthetics and intellectual content into the international arena.

The mission of the African Arts Institute is to harness relevant expertise, resources, infrastructure, markets, knowledge and information to help develop and sustain creative practice in Africa, and the protection and promotion of the continent’s cultural heritage and assets in line with our vision.

d6museum-bigDistrict 6 Museum

Up until the 1970s, District Six was home to almost a tenth of the city of Cape Town’s population. In 1966, the apartheid government, as it had done in Sophiatown in 1957, declared District Six “white”. More than 60,000 people were forcibly uprooted and relocated onto the barren plains of the Cape Flats. Over a century of history, of community life, of solidarity amongst the poor and of achievement against great odds, was imperiled.

The District Six Museum Foundation was established in 1989 and launched as a museum in 1994 to keep alive the memories of District Six and displaced people everywhere. It came into being as a vehicle for advocating social justice, as a space for reflection and contemplation and as an institution for challenging the distortions and half-truths which propped up the history of Cape Town and South Africa. As an independent space where the forgotten understandings of the past are resuscitated, where different interpretations of that past are facilitated through its collections, exhibitions and education programmes, the Museum is committed to telling the stories of forced removals and assisting in the reconstitution of the community of District Six and Cape Town by drawing on a heritage of non-racialism, non-sexism, anti-class discrimination and the encouragement of debate.

sonkeSonke Gender Justice Network

Sonke Gender Justice Network is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation, established in 2006. Today, Sonke has established a growing presence on the African continent and plays an active role internationally. Sonke works to create the change necessary for men, women, young people and children to enjoy equitable, healthy and happy relationships that contribute to the development of just and democratic societies. Sonke pursues this goal across Southern Africa by using a human rights framework to build the capacity of government, civil society organisations and citizens to achieve gender equality, prevent gender-based violence and reduce the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS.

tac-logoTreatment Action Campaign

Founded on 10 December 1998 in Cape Town, South Africa, The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) advocates for increased access to treatment, care and support services for people living with HIV and campaigns to reduce new HIV infections. With more than 16,000 members, 267 branches and 72 full time staff members, TAC has become the leading civil society force behind comprehensive health care services for people living with HIV&AIDS in South Africa.  Since 1998, TAC has held government accountable for health care service delivery; campaigned against official AIDS denialism; challenged the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies to make treatment more affordable and cultivated community leadership on HIV and AIDS. Our efforts have resulted in many life-saving interventions, including the implementation of country-wide mother-to-child transmission prevention and antiretroviral treatment programmes. For our efforts TAC has received world-wide acclaim and numerous international accolades, including a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. On 30 August 2006 the New York Times named TAC, “the world’s most effective AIDS group”.

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Women’s Legal Centre

The Women’s Legal Centre is a non-profit, independent law centre that seeks to achieve equality for women in South Africa. As access to justice is largely inaccessible to poor women, particularly black women, the WLC plays an important role in litigating in their interest and providing them with access to free legal advice. The WLC has a vision of women in South Africa living free from violence in safe housing, free to own their own share of property, empowered to ensure their own reproductive health rights and able to work in a safe and equal environment.

In order to fulfill its objectives, the WLC will, free of charge: Litigate cases which advance women’s rights and are in the public interest, particularly constitutional cases; and produce briefs to assist courts in constitutional cases which concern women’s rights and gender equality. In addition, where resources permit, the WLC aims to provide women’s organisations with technical legal assistance in making submissions to parliament and other institutions. Our plans include strategies to provide training and capacity building programs for para-legals and women lawyers who wish to conduct constitutional litigation in regard to gender issues. We believe that there is a need to collaborate with women’s organisations in all our activities.