WMC Women Under Siege

Women in South Africa are living in a war zone

This year has been especially horrific for the women of South Africa.

On October 15, two little girls, aged 2 and 3, were found in a public toilet in Diepsloot, a settlement in the north of Johannesburg, according to news reports. The girls, both cousins, who had been abducted in broad daylight, had been raped and strangled. 

Eight months prior, a security guard found a 17-year-old girl, Anene Booysen, at a construction site in the Western Cape. She had been raped, mutilated, disemboweled with a blunt object, and left to die. Booysen’s doctor called her intestinal injuries the “worst she had ever seen,” reports said. The teenager died in a hospital on February 2, six hours after she was found.

A wall mural in the town of Upington, South Africa. (Jeppestown)

South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexualized violence in the world, “with an average of 55,000 reported cases a year,” CNN reported in October. Police there say that a woman is raped every 36 seconds, while local women’s groups estimate that the number is closer to once every 26 seconds, according to international news outlets.

In 2012 alone, police documented more than 64,000 rapes, according to the UN’s Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, and that is likely a small portion of the number of actual attacks taking place.

No matter how you parse these numbers or who the source is, it is clear: Women in South Africa are living in a war zone.

An open secret
Despite the incredible statistics, few of the rapes are widely publicized. Similar to what we have seen in Mali, Guatemala, and Sudan, many if not most of the attacks in South Africa are unreported.

“Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in South Africa,” Sarah Strydon, a spokeswoman for local organization Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, told WMC’s Women Under Siege. “Data collected in 1997 for the national South African Demographic and Health Survey found that only one in nine women who had been raped had reported the matter to the police.” That number has seemingly only gotten worse.

A police study in April 2012 found that only one out of 36 rapes—not even 3 percent—is reported in the country, according to the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation. Meanwhile, intergovernmental organization Interpol estimated that less than 1 percent of rape cases are reported to the police.

In a strange twist, however, the perpetrators haven’t kept silent.

In 2009, the South African Medical Research Council conducted a groundbreaking study of 1,738 men, which found that one of four men questioned in the study had raped someone. Three out of four who admitted rape said they had attacked for the first time while in their teens. Nearly half of them admitted they had attacked more than once.

British broadcaster Sky News published a survey in September that its researchers had conducted of South African men. The team asked 38 men in a township near Johannesburg if they had ever raped anyone—and, if yes, why they had done so.

The results were harrowing: Twenty-eight of the 38 men surveyed confirmed that they had raped a woman. The reasons they offered ranged from feeling entitled or, simply: “We are gangsters. We love it.”

A rapist’s account, according to the survey:

Q: Have you ever slept with a woman who didn't want to?
A: Yes.

Q: When did it happen?
A: 2000.

Q: How did it happen?
A: Fridays we went out to chill and drink some beers … after hours me and my friend we saw a young good-looking woman who was drunk on the street, we took her to our place and [raped] her in our shack for an hour. This became a habit and every Friday we made sure that we hung on at the tavern to pick up girls who were drinking after hours.

Q: How many times have you raped a woman?
A: Five times.

Q: Have you ever been arrested for any rape?
A: Once.

Q: Did you serve time for it?
A: Yes.

Q: How long?
A: Six years.

Q: Do you think it's the right thing to do?
A: Why do women go to taverns in mini-skirts?

Q: What do you think they want?
A: To be raped.

Outrage mobilizes activists
Amid unceasing violence has come hope, however. Shortly after the rape and murder in February of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, South Africans, angry and aghast, started to act.

Local citizens created “Black Friday” on February 15, calling on South Africans to show their support against rape by wearing black.

The same month, a South African radio station launched a campaign, called #StopRape. Listeners of the station heard a chime every four minutes—a reminder that symbolized the frequency of rape in the country.

Strydon said her organization, Rape Crisis Town Trust, had also “seen a dramatic response from communities” since the brutal rape and murder of Booysen.

“We saw communities engaging more with the issue, we saw support flooding into our organization, and we saw an increased sense of frustration and helplessness from the public,” Strydon said. “So much, in fact, that rape is threatening to become a ‘popular cause’ for businesses, and we have seen an increase in businesses wanting to get behind the issue and provide us with assistance.” 

Strydon’s group offers services to rape survivors, including a 24-hour help line, counseling, and legal support. The organization has offered these services and others to men and women over the age of 14 who are victims of sexual offenses. An organization called True Anti-Rape conducts anti-rape workshops in the country to equip women with skills for survival and “empower women not only through physical skills … but also the emotional coping mechanisms developed through our training.” Every woman, the organization says, “should be able to defend herself against such an attack.”

At the time of Booysen’s murder, the South Africa-based Sonke Gender Justice Network called on government leaders to act.

Dean Peacock, executive director of the organization, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that Sonke has been pushing the government to develop an evidence-based strategic plan on gender-based violence that would focus on prevention and a strengthened criminal justice and health system. His group has also urged authorities to set aside a fund to provide civil society organizations with resources for their work.

Sonke is working to pull up the roots of why men attack women. Its “One Man Campaign” works to promote men’s involvement in issues relating to gender equality and HIV, affirming “that men have a positive role to play in bringing about change and provides them with sequenced opportunities to reflect on the costs they bear when they adhere to rigid notions of manhood.”

That, it would seem, is key: Stopping the incessant violence against women in South Africa requires education. If one man is willing to actually say out loud that women are wearing miniskirts to bars because they “want to get raped,” then imagine how many are silently thinking it.



More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexualized violence, Africa, Men
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Shazdeh Omari
Associate Editor
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