This is the reality women face today. From the pedestal of Olympic glory to the leafy northern suburbs, from the muddy unlit rutted pathways of our squatter camps to the ivory towers of corporate and political power, lurks the warped and brutal battering ram of violent men. Educated or illiterate, many believe that women are their personal property. A culture of sexual entitlement is ingrained into their male psyche.
A few weeks ago, I found myself – on my travels – confronted with the Time magazine cover: Man, Superman, Gunman; South Africa’s Culture of Violence. Customs officials, taxi drivers and hotel staff enquire with morbid fascination: why is your country is so violent? Back on the road, I am thankful that Time magazine has a different cover, but the sore still festers in our society.
Most times I am at a loss for words. One in two girls will be raped in their lifetime. Every four minutes another victim of rape is recorded. But according to Prudence from Positive Women’s Network, only one in nine women report their abuse.
We have to have a national discourse on this scourge. It is a matter of a national emergency. Otherwise our public debate gets reduced to the call for castration, the death penalty and damning the police.
We need to understand the systemic drivers of senseless violence and confront the root causes. A failure to do this will strangle the life of our infant democracy. But it will need men and women of courage to stand up and fearlessly deal with the demons that possess our hearts. And it is us as men of our country, who now need to hold the mirror to our faces.
Let us confront this damning wall of silence and denialism that hides our national shame.
Listening to the conversations across the land, in our media, homes, buses and meeting places, I tried to distil a few practical steps we could take.
Men are not born rapists. They become rapists and abusers because they grow up in homes where violence is tolerated. Can we legitimise and encourage whistle-blowing? Women in our homes must feel safe to report their husbands, brothers, uncles and male friends who they suspect are abusing their daughters. The empirical evidence is that close friends and family members account for the bulk of violations. How can we protect those who, in terrifying circumstances, need to be protected from the abusers and have their confidentiality shielded?
Everyone has a neighbour. Can we report violent behavior, the screams of abuse we hear constantly? Can we make fighting violence against women our business? How do we learn from our experiences in building campaigns against crime and corruption?
Can we start to discourage the sexual objectification of young girls? It means a culture change for how we raise our boys and the values we instil in our boys of respect for the equal and inalienable rights of girls.
Can we encourage our boys to be normal; to bury the notion that boys don’t cry; to arrest the machismo that bottles the anger that often explodes in violence from road rage to rape and the abuse of our women?
Our schools have become breeding grounds for sexual predators. In fact, I have heard some of these sexual predators who parade as teachers describe sex with girls as a ‘teacher’s perk’. We need to legislate, as a criminal offence, any sexual relationships between female pupils and teachers. This should be a summarily dismissible offence. The National Register of Sexual Offenders should automatically list these teachers as convicted offenders. They should be banned from ever again entering a place where activities of children are being conducted.
There needs to be a massive education drive to ensure that male pupils understand women’s rights are constitutionally and legally protected and that breaches result in criminal prosecution.
However sophisticated, passionate and convincing these cultural, religious and traditional practices are in their presentation, there’s a small detail that gets overlooked. They’re against the law. Our law. That is the real cancer in our society. It needs to be stigmatised, rejected and prosecuted as such.
We have seen evidence where the ‘sugar daddy’ phenomenon has encouraged the spread of HIV/Aids amongst young girls. According to the Gauteng Aids Council, the most vulnerable group in terms of HIV exposure are young women between the ages of 15 and 24, in relationships with partners that are, on average, five years their senior. Rape is a heinous crime and any cultural practice that places the fault in the women is archaic. Men are the rapists and it is false to place the onus on women not to incite men to rape them. We need a zero tolerance approach with public decision makers leading the way.
The world cries out for decisive action to end human trafficking that enslaves close to 12 million people in the world annually. In SA many of our children, girls and women are forced in sex slavery across our nation’s capitals.
4. ROLE OF THE POLICE
There are some 70,000 sexual offence cases registered at SAPS every year. Of those, we’re routinely told some 70% are rapes where the accused is known to the victim. So we have a complaint, a name, a witness, and a description of a criminal act for some 50,000 cases. Why do only 7-8,000 see the inside of a courtroom? Where are the others?
Over a decade ago, South Africa opened the first Thuthuzela Care Centre – a one-stop where victims of sexual crimes get medical, psychological, and police help all in the same place. The first one was opened in the Western Cape – we now have some 50 of them all over the country. They are studied as a model around the world as an integrated response to the burgeoning incidence of violent sexual acts against women and children and its intersect with HIV and AIDS.
We learned they work really well when you surround them with dedicated police forces (like the then-Child Protection Units), dedicated sexual offences courts and specialised prosecutors. So what did we do? We closed down the dedicated courts, and the specialised police units. Why?
There are countries in the world where this has produced major successes in the war against women abuse. New York requires the police to make an arrest if there’s evidence of domestic violence, even if the victim objects.
We need to have special police units to respond to domestic and sexual violence calls, with mandatory training for the officers in these units. The training includes safety (for the police responders, the victim, other family members etc.); recognising and evaluating injuries; and techniques for questioning victims, offenders and witnesses. Often these units include counsellors and work closely with public health providers and volunteer organisations providing victim services. An example is Houston.
We need a network of national, state-level and community organisations providing emergency shelter and transport to victims and kids; counselling, legal services, raising awareness. We need to boost funding directing to those non-governmental organisations at the forefront of this battle. Re-allocating the budget of the Ministry of Women and Children to the NGOs in this sector will do more for our battle against women abuse.
5. ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY
Harnessing the power of mobile phones to create a multi-faceted platform that enables users to access counselling services – and that connects victims to NGOs that offer reliable advice – is a critical part of the solution. Today the overwhelming majority of South Africans have access to mobile phones. It is an existing infrastructure that can be rapidly leveraged to build a campaign against rape and women abuse in South Africa. Social networking platforms like Mxit have a tremendous reach into the most vulnerable sections of our society. These technology providers are a key part of the solutions we seek.
Lastly, we urgently need to discuss the deep-seated, raging anger in our country. It reaches across race and class divisions. It’s toxic, corrosive and violent. When it explodes, it scatters its deadly shrapnel. Is it time for us to be outraged and for us as citizens to take a stand. For us to send a newsflash to perpetrators: we have not suspended our Constitution. All of us led by the government, and especially the ministers of the criminal justice cluster, need to send a clear message that we will implement the law and allocate the necessary resources to ensure decisive action. NOW. DM
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest