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The State of Sexual Violence in South Africa

The State of Sexual Violence in South Africa Posted on 12/05/2017
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Posters condemning sexual assault hang on the walls at Lifeline counselling center

South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the world with over 40,000 cases of rape reported each year. The South African Police Service’s most recent data indicates someone is raped in the country once every 13 minutes. Still more cases go unreported to the police. At the start of June, South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations’ head of media relations Mienke Steytler said that recent studies indicate rates for reporting rapes may be lower than 20%.

In 2017, gender based violence, including domestic and sexual assault, has received a lot of attention in the South African media. A headline grabbing case is that of student Karabo Mokoena, 22, whose boyfriend allegedly murdered her and attempted to dispose of her body in a dumpster before finally burning her remains. The incident sparked outrage across the country, forcing South Africans to confront the reality of widespread violence against women.

A crime of violence often linked to a need for power, some South Africans suspect the country’s extreme rate of sexual violence relates back to Apartheid, an era in which so many non-whites felt systematically powerless.

“People are angry,” said Thapelo Rahlogo, assistant coordinator of the men’s counseling program at ADAPT crisis center for victims of sexual and domestic violence. “People are violent and it goes back to Apartheid. People want to say, ‘During Apartheid this and that happened…So people are just angry at everything.’”

He said that people were far from equal under Apartheid, and were classified into hierarchies.

“White people were on the bigger positions,” he said. “[There was] a white man, a white woman, black man, black women, then children.”

Rahlogo added that this created a large-scale social cycle of abuse. A man would take his frustrations from work out on his wife at home, who would pass it on to their children. The children would then want to use their power over other children at school, and the cycle would continue.

Rahlogo said that gender based sexual violence can be linked to jealousy because during Apartheid women were not supposed to work. Today, some men use money as a mechanism for controlling their partners and now that it’s commonplace for women to work, some will turn to violence to exert power in a relationship.

South African author and journalist Lauren Beukes said she thinks this social background of powerlessness is the root of violence against women in South Africa.

“[Men] feel powerless in society and they feel powerless in their jobs and they feel powerless in their communities,” Beukes said. “Maybe they’re unemployed, they feel worthless, and they take that out on the people they supposedly love because they are the people they have power over.”

Chocolate Gwambe, a counselor at emotional wellness organization Lifeline, said that during Apartheid, law enforcement had different priorities. Law enforcers gave their attention to politically oriented cases, and women were often told to resolve domestic violence cases with their husbands on their own. Gwambe said he thinks that mentality continues today during the post-Apartheid era.

“You end up thinking that opening a case is wrong,” Gwambe said. “Even the law enforcement is telling you that. [Women] would be told, ‘No, go and resolve it. He’s your husband. You’re not working, who will work for you if you take him to jail?”

Gwambe added that a lot of the police officers that served during Apartheid continued to work in law enforcement after democracy was achieved in the mid-1990s, but their mentalities downplaying sexual violence stayed the same.

“Normally they will tell you, ‘Go on and resolve it,” Gwambe said. “In some cases, ‘resolve it’ means tolerate abuse.”

Survivors React to a Broken System: “It’s like they’re trying to prevent you from getting somewhere with your case”

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Survivor Cory Spengler’s interaction with South Africa’s legal system didn’t give her confidence in its ability to help assault victims.

In South Africa, the legal and medical systems often re-traumatize victims of sexual violence.

Cory Spengler, a rape survivor and gender equity activist, said her years-long interaction with ‘the system’ didn’t leave her feeling confident in its ability to help assault survivors. It took more than a year for her case to go to court, by which time she had accepted nothing would come of her suit. The summons ended up re-traumatizing her, and she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time she went into court she would feel ill and spend the evening in tears.

“When you wait that period of time before you go to court then it doesn’t allow you to heal because it brings it all back all over again,” Spengler said. “Then there’s no confidence in the court system. You go to pick up your summons and they don’t even give you the right prosecutor’s name, they don’t give you the right details. It’s like they’re trying to prevent you from getting somewhere with your case.”

Spengler added that the courts will drop a victim’s case whenever possible because the system doesn’t have confidence in sexual assault victims’ accusations. Spengler’s own case was on the verge of being thrown out until a state prosecutor volunteered to take the case. If it hadn’t been for the prosecutor’s goodwill, Spengler’s attackers would be living today without a criminal record.

Authorities in South Africa too often “look at the prosecution rates [and] if they feel a case doesn’t stand much of a chance of success then they’re more likely to drop it in favor of something with more evidence or a better chance of prosecution,” Karmila Pillay-Siokos, organizer of the Johannesburg Slutwalk protest, said. “It looks better for their stats.”

In this way, a cycle is created in which victims don’t feel they can report their abuse to the police.

According to counselor Chocolate Gwambe, the South African justice system does little to thwart the country’s high rate of sexual abuse. He said that oftentimes police officers don’t know the law when it comes to gender violence and are unaware of the procedures for correctly handling an assault case.

He said the police once had a sexual violence unit, but it was cut when it was determined it required too many resources to run. The police commissioner preferred for every police officer to be able to deal with a sexual abuse case.

Gwambe added there aren’t many legal deterrents in place to dissuade sexual abuse.

“The perpetrator is likely to get bail,” he said. “He goes back to the same house and when he gets there he says, ‘I told you I’d be back.’ The very same thing continues again.”

The same sort of negligence is evident in the medical treatment provided to South Africa’s assault survivors.

“If you’re going to report a rape and you have to go to a public hospital, if you’re lucky you will get given the Lifeline counseling number,” activist Karmila Pillay-Siokos said. “You don’t get an option of going to private one-on-one counseling. That’s not going to happen.”

She added that there is a huge difference in treatment provided to assault survivors that is correlated with money. Those who can afford private healthcare are given much better treatment. But a decent healthcare plan will cost upwards of 1,300 Rand per month, about $100 U.S. dollars. (The average monthly salary in South Africa for many occupations dominated by female workers, like housekeeper, is around $300.)

Because of this, women living in poor townships, where rates of sexual violence are the highest, receive the worst care for sexual assault.

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“If you’re going to report a rape and you have to go to a public hospital, if you’re lucky you will get given the Lifeline counseling number,” Karmila Pillay-Siokos said.

Pillay-Siokos said that living in a township completely changes the options available to assault victims. She said it often takes at least two taxis to reach the closest hospital or police station from Johannesburg’s townships and that the round trip cost is equivalent to one-third of an average day’s wages.

This ends up deterring a township resident from seeking out help when she is assaulted, as she must decide if hospital treatment or legal action is worth what it will cost her family, Pillay-Siokos added.

Mpumi Magqazana, 22, who grew up in impoverished Johannesburg township of Alexandra, said sexual assault is most prevalent in areas like her community because the issue receives very little media attention there. She said the township is not a nice area and she prefers to stay in her house or go to a very public place like a park.

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“We’re losing our humanity,” Magzazna said. “We’re turning into monsters.”

“People don’t understand consent here,” she said. “We are all entities living, just give me my space and I’ll give you yours. Don’t force yourself on me.”

It took four years for the rapist of Cory Spengler to be sentenced to house arrest. She said she saw his whole family celebrating in the courtroom upon his sentencing, while she sat alone in tears.

“It was just a sign of rape in South Africa,” she said. “The victim gets left to deal with everything on her own. Your support falls away along the way. Four years later who’s going to be standing next to you supporting you? Yet the perpetrator, their whole family stays. For some reason, everyone supports the perpetrator.”

“We’re losing our humanity,” Alexandra resident Magqazana said. “We’re turning into monsters. Now we’re living in a society where we can’t even trust each other with our children. Us women can’t just go by here; they want to snatch you.”

Services Available

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ADAPT offers counseling to victims of gender based violence, domestic violence, and sexual violence

Many are working hard to provide sexual assault survivors with support, such as counselors at ADAPT, which stands for Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training, and Lifeline.

At ADAPT, counsel is provided to victims of gender based violence, domestic violence, and sexual violence. They also offer couples’ counseling and legal advice to clients, going as far as too accompany women to court to give support or further assistance. Most services the non-profit organization offers are free of charge.

ADAPT works with media to bring attention to their efforts and South Africa’s sexual assault crisis. Thapelo Rahlogo said that even if things aren’t yet improving, he notices an awareness forming around the topic.

At Lifeline, eight permanent staff members and 12 temporary staff work around the clock to answer toll free lines and provide counseling, referral, and informational services. Lifeline also offers face to face counseling services on appointment and accept drop-ins whenever possible.

Chocolate Gwambe, who has been a Lifeline counselor for 17-years, said that even though the organization is short-staffed, they try to go an extra mile. In some cases, Lifeline will reach out to a school so a teacher could provide support in a child’s case or to the police station to set up appointments for a victim.

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Lifeline counselor Chocolate Gwambe said Lifeline staff  “go an extra mile” in offering victims support.

Gwambe said that sexual assault is an ongoing problem in the country, but those who are able to call Lifeline are able to get help.

Thapelo Rahlogo said that South Africa has many organizations working to address sexual assault, but there’s plenty more work to be done.

“The unfortunate part is the noise we want is not enough,” he said. “We need to do more campaigns, more events.”

College Students Fight Back 

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Artwork on the campus of University of Cape Town

Much of the movement to change the dialogue regarding sexual violence in South Africa is being led by college students, notes Kayleen Morgan, a 21-year-old honors journalism student at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

Millennials, Morgan said, are challenging the status quo as they realize a lot of the conditions they grew up in are problematic, like a culture fostering gender-based violence.

Morgan said that South Africa has always had a high rate of sexual assault, but it’s currently receiving more media attention because of the influential people, like slain Karabo Mokoena, who have been affected recently. Mokoena was a blogger with a huge social media following, particularly in the college demographic.

Following Mokoena’s gruesome death, women turned to social media to call on the South African government to increase security in the country and raise awareness about sexual violence. Morgan said young people want to see a political stance taken that South Africa no longer condones gender based violence.

Morgan said the hashtag “men are trash” has been trending on South African Twitter, while women have turned to “naming and shaming” their rapists online, letting the world know who assaulted them.

Morgan said her university is also working hard to denounce gender based violence. The men’s residence on campus has taken a stand and created an escort service for female students, walking them to classes, work, or wherever they need to be.

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Witwatersrand University journalism student Kayleen Morgan, 21, said college students are changing the conversation around sexual assault

“It’s a positive step because instead of denouncing certain issues, they’re doing something about it,” she said. “They’re actually challenging the status quo.”

Activist Cory Spengler said she agreed university students are leading the movement to change the dialogue around sexual assault. She said across the country university students have done silent protests to challenge the idea that rape victims should stay silent about their attacks.

Another college driven campaign has been topless protests confronting the stereotype that if a woman dresses a certain way she deserves to be raped.

College students have declared that even if they are “walking around topless that doesn’t give you the right to rape me,” Spengler said. “They were reclaiming their bodies, saying, “It’s my body, it doesn’t matter what I say, what I do, what I wear.”

According to Morgan, Witwatersrand’s gender equity office has been making great progress in raising awareness on sexual violence, too. She said the office routinely gives in-depth talks engaging both female and male students on how to fight against rape and sexual assault. The discussions shift the dialogue from victim blaming to discerning why sexual assault is happening on campuses and in the rest of South Africa, and what can be done to stop it.

“It provides a platform to get these issues out,” Morgan said. “Most of the time [sexual assault] is swept under the carpet and it’s like, ‘Oh god, another student got raped.” So instead, it’s like, “Why is this resurfacing, what are some of the issues we need to look at?”

Moving Forward: Changing Men From Problem To Part of Solution 

In South Africa, a lot of emphasis is being placed on including men in the conversation thus confronting sexual violence at its root rather than perpetuating stereotypes that blame victims of sexual violence.

ADAPT has a men-specific program that visits taverns, correctional facilities, and community centers to do campaigns with men to open the dialogue surrounding sexual violence to them. (ADAPT: Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training.)

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Assistant coordinator of ADAPT’s men’s program Thapelo Rahlogo emphasizes incorporating men into the conversation on sexual violence

“For men to change, we need to include them as part of the solution,” Thapelo Rahlogo, assistant coordinator of the men’s counseling program at ADAPT, said.

Counselors in the men’s program act as intermediaries, calling and speaking with men when a woman seeks out ADAPT’s help. They offer counseling for perpetrators to address their anger and other emotional issues.

When Johannesburg Slutwalk organizer Karmila Pillay-Siokos gives public talks about rape in South Africa, she points out that somebody is raising the rapists.

“I remember doing talks where I stood up and said, ‘We teach our sons who to rape instead of not to rape,’” she said.

Several audience members were offended by the comments, but Pillay-Siokos stood by her remarks.

“They have to be born to somebody,” she said. “They were raised by somebody.”

Additionally, survivors and counselors strive for the South African system to change the way it interacts with sexual assault survivors.

“There is still a lot that has to be done with the criminal system and the justice system,” said Chocolate Gwambe. “There isn’t enough support for victims.”

Gwambe, a counselor with Lifeline, said the systems often don’t cooperate with sexual assault survivors. Police don’t do thorough enough work and an assault case will have to be sent back for reinvestigation because insufficient information was gathered.

Sometimes, the case will get thrown out altogether because of inadequate evidence. Further, even when the police do their investigation effectively, sometimes the justice system is the one lacking, Gwambe said.

“If there was enough support, even perpetrators will know that the government takes this seriously,” he added.

Pillay-Siokos said she thinks the entire system needs to be reworked to better serve survivors of sexual assault. She envisions actual survivors training therapists and police officers on how to properly handle these cases. She said the judiciary also needs to have a better understanding of what it is to be a survivor of assault to prosecute fairly.

“There’s far too much victim blaming in the system,” Pillay-Siokos said. “Everyone from the officer that you report to all the way through to the judge and the prosecution.”

Rape survivor Cory Spengler thinks the biggest challenge will be changing the stereotypes surrounding rape culture. She and Pillay-Siokos agreed that too much emphasis is put on teaching women how to prevent rape instead of teaching men not to rape.

“If we’re going to control people, we should be controlling the ones who are committing the crimes,” Pillay-Siokos said.

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