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Sexual assault hidden in culture of silence

JOHANNESBURG – When South Africa’s former deputy president appears on a charge of rape at the Johannesburg High Court next week, he’s likely to draw a crowd of rousing supporters – including many women.

Jacob Zuma, a former leader in the apartheid struggle, had alrea

dy garnered considerable populist support during the corruption scandal that had led to his dismissal in June last year. When the rape allegation became public in November, many South Africans stood by him, and many are eager to voice their scepticism – and anger – at the 31-year-old accuser, a reported family friend who Zuma allegedly raped at his home.

“If it really happened to her, I feel sorry for her, because she’s ruined somebody else’s life politically,” said Lindiwe Tshabalala, 46, an office manager from Pimville, Soweto. Echoing other Zuma supporters around the country, Tshabalala contends he’s the victim of a complicated political conspiracy, and suggested his accuser made up or exaggerated the allegations.

“She should have screamed if this was really rape,” she said, adding that, in any case, it’s a women’s responsibility to defend themselves. “Even with a gun, you have to come out of that without being raped. Even if he slaps you – you run away, you scream, you do whatever you can to stop him.”

Around 2,000 rowdy Zuma supporters turned out at his first court appearance last month, and hurled abuse at a small group of women who carried placards proclaiming: ‘Silence does not equal consent’ and ‘Rape is always a crime’. “Look at those women – what are they doing here? Throw them out!” yelled one man.

The factors that account for the high prevalence of rape and sexual violence in this nation of 45 million are extraordinarily complex. After decades of a sustained liberation struggle, women’s rights are codified in the nation’s constitution. But in today’s democratic South Africa, still reeling from generations of race-based oppression and violence, little progress has been made to eradicate rape and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence.

The public’s response to the Zuma rape trial illustrates how survivors of sexual assault are often blamed for the incident – a consequence that encourages many to keep accusations silent.

“In South Africa, we have fantastic laws, policies, and structures that can compete with – and even lead – any country in the world, but there are massive groups in the population for whom stereotypes about sexual violence remain,” said Carrie Shelver, public awareness manager at People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), based in Johannesburg.

“This case asks us: Who exactly is our democracy being forged for?” Shelver said.

High Rates of Sexual Violence

South Africa’s incidents of reported rape are among the highest in the world; between April 2004 and March 2005, 55,114 cases were reported to the police.

However, many South African women’s groups and anti-violence organisations say most incidents of sexual violence go unreported, making the true figure much higher. As the Zuma trial gains media attention, the groups have launched a campaign to support the claimant.

The campaign, called “One in Nine”, [www.oneinnine.org.za], refers to the number of women who have been raped and report it to police, according to figures from a 2002 report by the Medical Research Council. The coordinating groups – including POWA, Gender AIDS Forum, Positive Women’s Network, Gender Links, Forum for the Empowerment of Women, and Men as Partners – say that of the reported cases, only 7 percent result in convictions. 

In 2004, a nation-wide study of adolescents found that the prevalence of sexual violence against children leads to attitudes that condone or expects such violence. The extensive survey, conducted by Mexico’s Centro de Investigación de Enfermedades Tropicales (CIET), incorporated interviews with nearly 270,000 South African boys and girls aged 10 to 19.

The study found that 58 percent of all respondents felt that “sexual violence does not include forcing sex with someone you know,” while another 30 percent of all respondents said “girls do not have a right to refuse sex with their boyfriend.” A total of 8.6 percent of all respondents, male and female, had been forced to have sex in the past year.

It also found that 66 percent of males and 71 percent of females who admitted to forcing someone else to have sex, had themselves been forced to have sex.

Other studies have corroborated the prevalence of forced sexual initiation in South Africa. A 1996 study published in The South African Medical Journal found that 28 percent of young girls surveyed in the Eastern Cape province first became sexually active because they were “forced by partner”, while another 20 percent cited “peer pressure”.

In 2001, researchers reported in the journal Reproductive Health Matters that 24 percent of adolescent girls surveyed in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province said they were “persuaded” or “tricked” into their first sexual experience.

While sexual violence occurs worldwide and in all strata of societies, many South African children have been particularly vulnerable to assault. Apartheid-era policies meant parents often lived apart from their children, who were instead raised by relatives and neighbours. The isolation and vulnerability of young people continues today, as poverty endures and as more and more children in South Africa are orphaned by AIDS.

Sexual Violence as Response to Oppression

The prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa also relates to the history of state-sponsored oppression, as well as the status of women.

“In general, rape is more common in countries with both a marked gender hierarchy and a culture where violence is used to assert dominance in whatever form that takes – either by the state or by individuals,” said Rachel Jewkes, head of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Unit.

The cultural taboos around sexual violence means it tends to be discussed in a very one-dimensional way, said Jewkes, who has spent the last decade studying gender-based violence in South Africa.

She noted that rape occurs within a continuum of sexual violence, which can range from pressurised consensual sex to achieving sexual contact through coercion, lying or threatening; giving someone drugs and alcohol; or using physical force.

One of the dynamics that fuel this continuum is South Africa’s gendered hierarchy, in which women are generally subordinate to men, Jewkes said.

“One way that manifests in South Africa is the idea that men will do anything they can get away with, and it’s up to women to make sure they can’t get away with things,” she said. “That’s where blaming the woman comes in.”

That’s true even among women, she noted. “There’s a sense among women that … if you let him get away with it, it’s a sign that you did want it, and therefore you shouldn’t go around complaining,” she said.

Patriarchy is part of the dynamic, yet the factors that move perpetrators to sexual assault are extraordinarily complicated, particularly within the context of South Africa’s history of oppression, high unemployment and HIV/AIDS.

In a 2001 study of rape cases in South Africa’s Limpopo province, University of Pretoria anthropologist Isak Niehaus found that some men who were marginalised in their community had raped as a means to symbolically assert masculine domination. In three case studies, he found that men had used rape to dramatise their heterosexual virility, to humiliate more successful women, and to enact an ideal of their patriarchal rule within households.

“The disjuncture between men’s ideals and the actuality of their life situations forms the context for the current crisis of sexual violence in post-apartheid South Africa,” he wrote.

Legacy of Silence after the Struggle

In recent years, South Africa has created institutions to respond to the high rates of sexual assault, including special Sexual Offences courts. But advocacy organisations say the measures are not enough to dramatically curb sexual violence, and reflect a lack of political will to address the issue.

In particular, many advocacy groups are frustrated by the slow revision of the nation’s Sexual Offences Act, penned in 1957, which uses a narrow definition of rape. The new bill has stalled in negotiations for seven years.

“Most of us in the field do not understand why this delay has been so long and think the delay reflects the ambivalence about sexual violence in the highest levels of policy making,” Jewkes said.

In addition to bolstering institutions that support sexual assault survivors, Jewkes said the government should launch a nationwide process to examine gender inequality in the same way racial inequality was scrutinised after apartheid.

That is echoed by others who say women’s liberation was subjugated to national liberation during the apartheid struggle, only to have gender equality issues fall by the wayside in South Africa’s new democracy.

“The whole thing of women as property and ownership wasn’t resolved around liberation,” said Rhoda Kadalie, a former Human Rights Commissioner and founder of the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape. “While we have those paper rights, in reality the gender politics and behaviour of men towards women … Haven’t changed.”

Part of the problem, Kadalie said, stems from the reluctance of government to expose the sexual violence perpetrated during the struggle, including within the camps of the exiled African National Congress (ANC).

“All the activism around gender equality and sexual equality that was part of the liberation rah-rah has now evaporated now that the ANC is in power,” Kadalie said. “And what I find very troubling is the self-censorship among women in the struggle.”

Yet that self-censorship is deeply rooted in South Africa, according to POWA’s Shelver.
“There’s a culture of, ‘Don’t speak out, because I didn’t speak out’,” Shelver said. “There’s a sense that women have to keep quiet; that speaking out can be a betrayal to the person accused, to the nation, to the political party.”

Power on Trial

Loyalty to Zuma has been at the heart of his support network. Earlier this month, some supporters even turned the rape accusation on its head, with demonstrators wielding placards that read, “Jacob Zuma has been raped”.

Shelver said the One in Nine campaign supports a fair judicial process in which Zuma is innocent until proven guilty. But she hopes the trial will be a catalyst to broaden national awareness – and dialogue – about sexual violence.

“Rape always has to do with power,” Shelver said. “Where the alleged perpetrator is the former deputy president – who has so much power – it was clear to use that we need to have some kind of coordinated support for the claimant.” — IRIN

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