Universities across the country are faced with serious sexual harassment and rape cases – evident in the growing number of gender equity offices within South African universities. As we welcome the structure as part of the solution to the war declared on womxn bodies, it is disheartening to realise how these offices can be anti-womxn in their approach.
The Wits Gender Equity Office and Wits-based Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) has recently made public that someone in our society is potentially a sexual offender, but that nothing further is being done by both these offices to protect society. The irony is that both these organisations have a fiduciary duty to society, a strong ethical one to be precise. Nonetheless, this event reopens the discourse on whether there is more harm to the victim if the identity of their perpetrator is to be revealed.
#RUReferenceList was a necessary point of inflection in the womxn’s movement. It recognised the lack of reliable platforms where womxn can access information on sexual offenders as a means of protecting themselves from potential violence. The principle is that the more information potential victims have on their potential perpetrators, some criminals are deterred from committing the crime and victims can protect themselves more effectively. This is more important in sexual assault crimes where the criminal is likely to be someone you trust rather than a stranger, because knowing the identity of accused or proven sexual assaulters humanises the criminal, potentially minimises the number of future victims and provides some level of justice for past victims. Movements such as the #RUReferenceList remind us that the perpetrator has not only offended the current victim, but that he may have offended countless other victims and is yet to target many more others – he is our perpetrator, he is a violator of our body and continues to terrorise our state of mind.
Appreciating the stance taken by CALS director to not “talk about him and his identity”, lest we run the risk of making it “more difficult for the complainant” – we are presented with a false dichotomy between the victim’s healing and the potential social benefit that former and future victims can get from knowing his identity. The rise in number of victims that come forward to being harassed by someone once it is public knowledge, is evidence of how so much more is achieved in a transparent world.
As a nation, we need to introspect quite deeply on our progress in achieving the standards we set for ourselves. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have proudly assumed the role of holding us accountable to our own standards and philosophies across all sectors, it has become its own sphere of society with the ability to elicit an unexpected power that reminds us how we should frame our present to prepare us for our re-imagined world in the future.
Essentially, if CSOs were a person they should be the revolutionist because of their ability to point out what is wrong in the system and fight for change, especially when there is resistance. Sexual assault cases take an inefficient approach of investigation in it being legislated that the identities of potential perpetrators should remain confidential. When CSOs engage with one particular case, how are they able to connect their specific case to a community of victims but for if the identity of the investigated were to be revealed?
The onus to break the silence of sexual crimes cannot remain in the hands of one brave victim to speak up in the court of law – hence the relevance of gender equity offices where victims can solicit justice in a safe way; these platforms should be viewed no different to a courtroom in some respects. These offices become pointless when potential perpetrators can recuse themselves from the consequences of a sexual crime through removing themselves from that environment. This gives no recourse to the current victim, gives womxn little faith in the offices involved and makes other womxn in different environments vulnerable to being harmed by the same person whose identity cannot be disclosed.
CSOs have shown us that they can be radical; they can be bold, they are not afraid to challenge the law all under the banner of protecting society – yet turn a blind eye to the real harms caused by one of their own. Institutions of Higher Education and CSOs ought to realise that their duty is in many ways to all of society; their credibility rests on their willingness to work relentlessly on gender equity in the workplace and in society. In most instances, the revolution requires agents to act outside of the law in order to correct the wrongs in society; this can form part of the law making process. CSOs can take appropriate radical action on behalf of the vulnerable because the alternative lends itself to mob justice where the collateral harms are far greater.
For years, we have seen womxn boldly stand up to the horrors of the collective, womxn have provided strength, wisdom and leadership to movements across the world. A movement that cannot be bold and ready to stand up to the injustices faced by even one womxn – is anti-womxn. How genuine is the engagement if not open and fearless?
The sexual harasser is not faceless, nameless nor weaponless – the sexual harasser has an identity and often a penis too. We are ready to take the high road on sexual assault – CSOs should be prepared to do the same. DM