The rape and murder of Anene Booysen has brought the horrific levels of violence against women in South Africa to the forefront of discussion again.
Again, the statistics are splashed on the front pages of the newspapers. Again, we are shocked. Politicians spin the usual empty promises and citizens protest.
But the dust settles, nothing changes and the violence and rape continue.
This is unacceptable.
Every South African needs to examine their role in the perpetuation of rape, for we are all responsible.
As you read this, you are horrified. You say: “What nonsense! I abhor rape.” But despite your protestations, many of you are part of the problem.
The root cause of rape lies not within the law or the inefficiencies of our criminal justice system. It doesn’t lie with the thousands of disenchanted and disempowered young people who roam our streets.
It lies in people’s attitudes, across all cultures and classes, when they cling to outdated, harmful myths and stereotypes that perpetuate rape and violence.
Myths lead people to blame women for rape. People say “She was not really raped” or “She was asking to be raped”.
Culpability is deflected from the rapist and unjust ammunition is given to defence lawyers.
Myths stigmatise survivors who subsequently feel too ashamed to report the rape. Most rapists walk among us, unpunished and ready to re-offend. The survivor’s guilt and shame is increased, she becomes isolated and her recovery is sabotaged.
These are some of the myths:
* Rapists are mentally ill or obvious degenerates. This is perhaps the hardest of all myths to break. For the truth is, most rapists and perpetrators of violence against women are not madmen – they are normal men who appear responsible at work and supportive of their families. People simply cannot believe that the intelligent, fun-loving gentleman who treats women so well in company can be a different person at home.
* Men rape for sex. The truth is that rape is not about relief from sexual desire. Rape is a weapon used to gain power and control over another person. A rapist gains satisfaction by humiliating and controlling his victim and he uses sexual behaviour as the way to do this.
* Women can prevent being raped if they try hard enough: no bruises mean there was no rape. The truth is that in most cases overt force is unnecessary. Men use emotional manipulation, weapons or threats to subdue women: “I will kill you if you fight” or “It will be your daughter next”. Victims submit through fear.
* Most rapists are unknown to their victims. The truth is that most rapists are known to victims. A person is much more likely to be raped by a relative, a husband, boyfriend, ex-partner or friend than by a stranger.
* Women who wear revealing clothing invite rape. The truth is that appearance and clothing have nothing to do with rape. Old women in tracksuits, babies in nappies and nuns in habits get raped – less so women wearing revealing clothing.
* A woman causes her own rape by going into an unsafe area. The truth is that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted in their homes or in places familiar to them than anywhere else.
* Promiscuous women get raped, not “respectable women”. The truth is that there is no type of woman that gets raped, and the lifestyle and personality of the victim has no influence. Women of all ages get raped – even babies. Promiscuous women form a small minority.
* Women who get drunk invite rape. The truth is that respectable men and women get drunk on occasion – it is not a crime to drink, it is a crime to rape. In South African law, being drunk does not excuse a rapist.
* Once a man is excited about sex, he cannot stop. The truth is that all men and women get sexually excited and want it to end in sex. But we are able to choose to stop and wait for the feeling to subside rather than force sex on someone. Rapists are men who choose not to stop.
* Women say they have been raped to get revenge on a man. The truth is that women rarely do this because a rape trial is very traumatic. It takes huge courage.
* Wives cannot be raped by their husbands. The truth is that a man can be charged with rape if he forces his wife to have sex with him.
* Women say no when they mean yes. In some cultures, a woman might be expected to be coy and not welcome sexual advances. No must always mean no. A man must make sure his advances are welcome.
All these myths blame the victim and exonerate “normal” men in normal situations.
This is why the words of the well-meaning Western Cape MEC Albert Fritz are so damaging: “We want to call on our young men and women to please ensure they don’t get into situations at 3am in the morning where they place themselves in danger” and “Please ensure that you are safe and go with people you can trust, who won’t hurt you”.
Immediate and drastic action is needed to change the status quo.
The government must employ experts to educate pupils on gender equality issues, in their mother tongue, through all 12 grades of school as part of weekly life orientation classes.
Outdated tribal and religious practices that degrade and objectify women must be outlawed.
Politicians, policemen, teachers and clergymen must serve as positive role models for young men and women. If they fail, they must be replaced.
No one must be above the law: not pop stars, priests or presidents.
Religious leaders need to be more vocal and confront rape and violence against women from the pulpit.
Teachings of the church must elevate the status of women within marriage and the institution itself must be portrayed as a loving partnership where men and women play differing but equal roles.
Outreach programmes can take this message into communities.
The church must be a safe place for women to disclose violent partners and with the women’s permission, elders must intervene and name and shame those who do not reform.
Collectively, parents, teachers and leaders must teach our sons and daughters from childhood that a woman is never a man’s possession, he may never own or control her; that a woman’s body is sacrosanct and that she alone may give a man permission to touch her; and that emotional, verbal or physical violence towards a woman is forbidden.
We must point out unacceptable behaviour when we see it – in real life, in movies and on television.
We must teach children the skills to deal appropriately with emotional upheaval and anger. We must help them when they fail.
The government must ensure that the criminal justice system provides a welcoming environment for women to report rape and conviction rates must increase.
Always speak out socially against presumptions based on myths.
The government must generously fund organisations that assist women and promote gender equality.
Don’t believe it can’t happen to you, to your mother, your wife, your sister or your daughter. It can.
* Liz Cowan is a counsellor at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. She is the author of Tenderly Taming Teenagers, Spearhead Imprint (New Africa Books, 2004). She writes in her personal capacity.