Once again we are horrified by the rape of a defenceless young person. The torture she underwent, through the mutilation of her body, defies understanding.

We know the act of mutilation is one that shows anger beyond control, and gang rape is often an expression of “punishment”. How is it possible people can be so cruel and brutal? This girl was left for dead – but through her determination, she stayed alive long enough to provide some evidence for police to catch the culprits and, crucially, to provide her mom with an opportunity to comfort her, and perhaps say goodbye.

Gang rape as a means of punishment is strongly linked to our patriarchal society, in which women are regarded as possessions. This is especially prevalent among young men as an outward expression of their need to control and punish. If the woman does not respond in the way the man demands, anger translates into extreme violence and brutality.

This rape brings to light sociological issues that reflect a disturbing pattern in our society. The parenting and support to families living in poverty without health care, the stigma attached to mental health conditions in townships, the lack of support for mental health conditions in poor communities, law enforcement responses to parents who seek help, the socialisation of male teenagers, the lack of any meaningful future for boys, the phenomenon of absent fathers. Many of these factors are present in this case.

Our social fabric is characterised by extreme social deprivation within which the problems of low self-esteem, hopelessness and helplessness – with little to live for, no aspiration and no inspiration – can fester. All this forms a lethal cocktail, an explosion waiting to happen.

What must society do? First, we must rebel against it. We must own the problem of rape. Rapists come from within our society, our communities and our families. They are not aliens from Mars. We must recognise that rape is deeply entrenched and it will need concerted efforts by all in society, not only law enforcement, to combat it.

To date there is no evidence of sufficient progress against the volume of rape. Rape is an expression of gender hierarchy, and as such, gender socialisation is society’s primary tool in changing this state of affairs.

This is not the first of such brutal acts, nor will it be the last, and the media is leading a cacophony of bloodthirsty voices of outrage, revenge and other knee-jerk reactions.

As cold-hearted as it may sound, actions such as castration and the death penalty, which the media and society call for, will not prevent similar crime in future. Neither does the wearing of skimpy clothes mean women should be violated.

Are we sufficiently outraged that we can be mobilised into action to rise above crime and improve our society? No amount of narrowly focused government action, improvement of our justice system, effective law enforcement or longer jail time will eradicate crime and rape. It requires action from all of us. We need to rid ourselves of complacency; we need to understand the difference each of us can make to our collective quality of life.

South Africa is held up as a shining example of peaceful political transition. Let’s harness the negative energy that this heinous deed has generated into a strong force for change. We challenge each member of society to rise above crime and join us in a sweeping countrywide positive Action for a Safe South Africa. Make Human Rights Day on March 21 a force for change.

l Dawson is the deputy chief executive of Nicro, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders