Why sexual violence should not be normalised in society

Thousands of protesters, dressed in black, protested last year in front of Parliament for a stop to violence against women. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Thousands of protesters, dressed in black, protested last year in front of Parliament for a stop to violence against women. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 10, 2020


Women empowerment issues have been ingrained into our national consciousness, meaning fewer and fewer oppose such thing as women rights not just in the world of work but in society as a whole.

It is undeniable that women (and children by proximation to their mothers) tend to be affected more than other members of society in many situations. Access to healthcare, education and jobs are some of the areas where women struggle. And with the outbreak of diseases, for example, they bear the brunt since they look after the sick. 

When it comes to rape and abuse (otherwise called gender-based violence, or GBV), women suffer disproportionately in comparison to men. That is a fact that cannot be denied. Necessary laws have been put in place to ensure that women are protected, i.e. the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act No. 32 of 2007. The biggest challenge however is in the attitudes of society to make this goal a reality. Barely a week passes without hearing a horrific story of a woman being raped or abused. That is the reason some people concluded that GBV is a national crisis. 

As with every crisis, there individuals who stand to gain or profit handsomely from such a crisis. The emerging picture is that some people who understand the sensitivities associated with rape and GBV are taking full advantage of the situation by making rape allegations for expedient reasons rather than to address the harrowing crime of rape itself.

As a result, women in general lose a voice and anyone who alleges that she was abused or raped is treated with skepticism. Women face an additional load of proving to all sundry that indeed what they are saying is true as if that is a requirement for the case to stand. Lisa Lazard of the UK based Open University concurs, by saying that women face a question like: “Why didn’t these women speak up sooner?” Or their credibility is put in the spotlight.

The argument therefore is that serious issues like rape and abuse are increasingly being ‘weaponized’ in SA for personal and political gains. The weaponization, as presented in false allegations, aims to destroy men through false rape allegations. Deliberate acts of creating rape allegations ‘normalizes’ sexual violence in the South African society. These cases don’t only affect prominent individuals but ordinary citizens too. A Durban-based primary school teacher Patrick Buthelezi spent thirteen months in jail after was falsely accused of raping an under age child. Not many people get to be heard once they have the rape stigma.

In his book ‘Forensic Victimology: Examining Violent Crime Victims in Investigative and Legal Contexts’ (2013), Brent E. Turvey explains that the true percentage of false rape accusations is unknown. But data collected in other places estimates that this figure could be anything between 2% and 10%. The figure is 4% and 6% in the UK and US, respectively. A 2017 study by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) indicated that “in 1.9% of cases the police asserted that the rape allegations were false...” Whether these numbers could be considered statistically insignificant or not, it is debatable. 

Sexual violence also affects men. The study by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) showed that between 28-37% of adult South African men disclose having ever raped. Victims could be either women or men. What remains least spoken about in public is not only cases of men abuse but the use of rape allegations against men as a weapon to achieve personal, economic and political mileage. This is not say the act of rape or abuse occurred or not but how it is utilized for other purposes rather than seeking justice. In essence, this is a new area of thinking that I advocate for in academia and society.

The relationship between rape and war is quite established in research but it is more focused on the act of rape itself, and rarely deals with the packing of rape allegations for other purposes. No evidence exists to show that false accusations have been thoroughly investigated. Also, the role played by women in fabrication of rape stories that would ultimately be used to tarnish someone’s image is always downplayed. I have personally never heard of a woman who was taken to the gallows for misinformation and or assisting in the development of such stories. 

In war zones, rape has long been discussed as a weapon. An expose called ‘Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?’ (2016) details how Indian army soldiers in 1991 “raped between 23 and 100 Kashmiri women during a search and cordon operation.” Also, during the European conquest in the Americas and colonization many years thereafter (now also including other parts of the world) rape was legalized to change demographics, and to project power. There are many instances that could be cited to show how violation of women bodies and or rape were used as a tool or instrument of warfare.

At Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ANC, two men were accused of rape. But the two cases fizzled and life went back to normal. In parliament, serious allegations of violence against women were leveled against prominent individuals. Here again, the matter disappeared without trace. Things like hashtag #MeToo a few years ago never really bore any fruit since no one was prosecuted for allegations made by many women who came out to say they were abused. What this essentially means is that we have hanging allegations that were never followed up but the accused carry the stigma as a result of unproven accusations. As indicated above, sexual violence is crime and therefore a criminal act cannot remain a matter of social media and tabloids.

These two examples go on to show how the seriousness of GBV is overlooked. What is unfortunate is that the very same women who desperately need protection play their part in cases that are either made up or falsified. I use the terms ‘made up’ or ‘falsified’ deliberately to signify the weaponization of rape and or violence against women. But how can the same women who aspire to more emancipation, simultaneously support and partake in acts of arbitrary use of violence and rape to destroy anyone who is innocent? 

According to Eugene J. Kanin, false rape allegations “are not the consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress situations.” He adds that false rape allegations serve three major functions for the complainants, namely providing an alibi, seeking revenge, and obtaining sympathy and attention. Other reasons have to do with extortion and tarnishing someone’s image. 

Larzard argues, “The weight and importance given to the issue of false allegation is surprising given how prevalent sexual violence is.” The aim of this article is not to trivialize acts of sexual violence and abuse against women but to compel society to discourage using rape allegations as a weapon to achieve other aims other than to justice for the victims. Sexual violence should not be normalized in society, that is the standpoint.

It was good that the occurrences in parliament were nipped in the bud because the GBV issues were miscarried as part of a political game. If the gaming with sexual violence (weaponization) continues without anyone calling for it to stop, it will take years for SA to uproot the culture of violence, especially against women. The situation is made extremely difficult by failures in the justice system to prosecute.

The SAMRC suggests, “Of the 3 952 cases included in the study, an arrest was made in 2 283 (57%) cases and 2 579 (65%) were referred for prosecution.” The study found that only 18.5% cases were trialed and a disappointing 8.6% cases were finalized, with a verdict of guilty of a sexual offence. Notwithstanding this information, many of the victims cannot even come forward for many reasons. These include very young children who cannot speak for themselves and millions of women in different set ups. So, abusing the only tool the women and vulnerable groups via weaponization undermines the struggle against sexual violence. The fact that a child rapist who got a life sentence not so long ago is back in the dock to seek appeal on grounds that he ‘shows remorse’ is an indication of how bigger the mountain ahead of us. Let us end normalization of sexual violence in SA.

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