From Cape Town to Washington DC, the resemblance is striking

South Africa suffers great violence, particularly sexual violence – as do most major cities in the U.S., including Washington, DC where I live. In 2006, South Africa had 40.4 murders per 100,000 people. That same year DC had 29.7 murders per 100,000 and Birmingham, Alabama had 44.5. The parallels in statistics extend far beyond crime. A 2012 report found that in DC, HIV/AIDS had a 3.2% prevalence in the population. According to the report, if Washington DC were an African nation, it would rank 23rd out of 54 countries in percentage of people with HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on. Issues of education, gentrification, mental illness, drugs, class, and race show little statistically significant differences between regions. On paper it’s hard to tell which is a city in a ‘developed’ country and in a ‘developing’ country. Maybe that’s not the important distinction.

Having lived in Cape Town for six months, I saw people striving for change in ways I haven’t seen in Washington. Point-by-point, when looking at what is being done to address issues such as sexual violence or HIV/AIDS, I found that the residents of Cape Town are taking action.

This social action is epitomized by the work I witnessed at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. During my time as a Rape Crisis intern, the program nearest to my heart was The Birds and Bees. The program educated peer educators to challenge the negative social norms that drive rape among youth, and support survivors in their schools. They train both boys and girls aged 13-18 from high schools in low income neighborhoods how to be role models to their fellow peers and youth of the community through a series of seminars covering a wide range of topics such as relationships, sex, sexuality, HIV, rape, and gender equality. I witnessed first hand how amazing and effective this rape prevention model is. To have a fourteen year old boy say “Rape Crisis changed me a lot. […] I can tell another person about how to treat a woman” is both uplifting and groundbreaking.


What makes this program so effective is the open and participatory style of discussion that allows students to feel comfortable asking anything. The format makes it so that every student, whether girl or boy, is more confident, knowledgeable, and committed to making change in their community as an ally of Rape Crisis and as an advocate for the citizens of their country. The work that I witnessed oceans away inspired me to seek something like this at home in Washington. I wanted to be a part of something that empowered the youth of the city who are most vulnerable to its harsh realities – and I found it!

Peer Health Exchange (PHE) is an organization that trains college students to go into inner city 9th grade classrooms and teach sexual education and drug and alcohol awareness. The ‘near-peer’ model is similar to Rape Crisis’s peer model. Recently, the organization modified its curriculum in ways that draws it even closer to the Rape Crisis’s model. Just a year ago, the program was lecture style, like most high school sex-ed – simply facts presented in an hour and the hope that it sticks with a fourteen year old for the rest of their life. PHE’s new model uses activities, interaction, and discussion between teacher and student. Through the near-peer model, the goal is not to tell students what they should and should not do, but rather supply facts and teach an effective decision making process that allows students to make their own decisions that are right for them. Teaching began in October, and I  believe the new model will be a more effective means of addressing issues that affect Washington youth. Cape Town and Washington might be distant, but they are not unlike each other. They are united by their weaknesses but also by the strength of their citizens, determined to make their homes better for the future.


Shakti Naidoo

Shakti has worked in peer education youth programs in Cape Town, with the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, and in Washington, DC, with Peer Health Exchange and has a passion for gender rights and health issues. 

How much does government really do for victims of gender based violence?

I guess one way of finding out is to ask who pays. I’m afraid ‘follow the money’ is a bit of a mantra for me. Don’t tell me how much you care – tell me what you do. Or how much you spend.

If I said to you that government covers two percent of the cost of gender based violence in South Africa, you’d be startled right? 16 Days of Activism, the National Council on Gender Based Violence, a 24-hour Command Centre dedicated to provide support and counselling to victims of gender based violence…surely that adds up to a lot more than two percent?

Zimbini - a rape survivor

Actually not. The cost of gender based violence in South Africa amounts to over R 28 billion, and represents 0.9 percent of the country’s GDP for 2012. Victims carry 90 percent of that cost. So what does the government’s two percent do? What are the big ticket items?

Not specialised Sexual Offences Courts. We know they are one of the best hopes of getting cases to court and getting convictions. When they work well with their surrounding communities and collaborate with a local NGO like the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust to offer related psychosocial care they are one of the best ways of reducing secondary trauma to victims. In the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the adjudication of Sexual Offences (MATTSO), the Task Team reported that only 15 Sexual Offences Courts are functional.  There are supposed to be at least 276.

The roll out of 57 new courts are planned across the country. [1] The cost per court is R3.8 million per court, per year. There is R22 million budgeted for the first 22 courts. That’s enough for 6 courts, not 22 courts. Show me the money, people. Talk is cheap.

Alison Tilley

Alison Tilley is an attorney, and the head of advocacy at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, which is a law centre based in South Africa, specialising in access to information and whistleblowing law. The Centre works on these transparency issues across

[1] The cost of Justice in South Africa: Tracking Expenditure on Gender based violence in the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development Joy Watson February 2014 Parliament of the Republic of South Africa. Pg 7

Shrien Dewani: Two things we should think about

In September this year South Africa supported a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The resolution aimed to protect against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.

Four years since 2010 have passed and it has finally come the time for the trial related to the murder of Anni Dewani to begin. The spectacle of reporting on this trial has already revealed two things I think are important to reflect on in light of the spirit of this resolution.

  1. South African media still considers heterosexuality as ‘the norm’, to the extent to which it is invisible

In his statement, Shrien Dewani pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, and also confessed to being bisexual. A number of pieces have been written about this coverage already so I won’t say much other than to state the obvious – it was bad journalism.

The media reporting on the trial lazily described this revelation as a ‘possible motive for murder’ and focussed entirely on this aspect for the first day of the media coverage around the trial. Even international media like the Guardian suggested that “his sexuality is likely to be presented by prosecutors as a motive for wanting his wife dead.”

Dwali pic

Let’s stop for a second and go back to a very recent high-profile murder trial.

Oscar Pistorius, a heterosexual man, guns down his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a bathroom door. Accident or not, it was Pistorius who pulled the trigger. Despite the fact that South Africa is a country where there are extremely high levels of violence against women perpetrated by an intimate (male) partner, and the fact that in many cases where a woman is murdered she is murdered by an intimate (male) partner, Pistorius’ heterosexuality never came into it. It seems strange no – in a country where heterosexual masculinity frequently implies violence and dominance over women? If Pistorius’ sexuality wasn’t important, why is Dewani’s?

  1. Media reporting and social reaction like this contributes to further stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity, and is perhaps why Dewani hid his sexuality in the first place

The media reporting thus far reinforces what gender theorists like to call ‘heteronormativity’. In essence this is the belief that people are divided into separate and complementary genders (man and woman) and that these are generally linked to biology (male and female) heterosexual desire (male man loves female woman).

The very fact that his bisexuality could ever have been considered as a motive for murder suggests that in the minds of the media (and possibly its readers) heterosexuality is the only ‘normal’ sexuality and that anything else leaves someone, well, a bit weird. And if they’re a bit sexually weird, it’s possible that they could be a murderer.

In case you didn’t get me here, those ideas are a) WRONG and b) DANGEROUS.

They’re wrong because they ignore the full spectrum of sexuality. They’re wrong because they reinforce homophobia by perpetrating the idea that there is a link between homosexuality, bisexuality and violence. There is no evidence for this latter idea.

In a country like South Africa where violence against members of the LGBTI community is prevalent, where hate speech and hate crimes force people out of their schools, homes and communities, to in any way endorse perceptions that bisexuality is ‘abnormal’ or even remarkable is dangerous. Particularly, the idea that homosexuality and bisexuality are linked to violence could result in retaliatory violence, the framing of violence against LGBTI people as ‘corrective’, and the continued stigmatisation of people who are not heterosexual.

In essence, these ideas create a world where it is not safe to say that you are bisexual, homosexual or anything other than heterosexual. They reinforce the world that made Dewani afraid to admit his sexuality in the first place. They create the cultural currency that allows the exclusion of LGBTI people, and go against the commitments made by South Africa in the SOGI resolution.

For these reasons alone, media headlines like the ones we’ve seen so far should be stopped, and instead, some less sensational, real analysis should be welcomed.

Jen Thorpe

Jen Thorpe is the editor of She’s a feminist writer and researcher who is passionate about getting the word out about violence against women, and about research around women’s negotiation of sexuality. In 2010 she started the My First Time women’s writing project which is still open for stories from women on their significant first time experiences, and was published as book in 2012.

Ending violence against children: A key component of ending violence against women

South Africa stands on the threshold of being able to realise a serious commitment to the prohibition of corporal punishment in the home, with a further amendment to the Children’s Act as Amended (No. 38 of 2005 and No. 41 of 2007) on the table. The successful passage of the current amendment through the Parliamentary process will, of course, not be enough to ensure that children are afforded the same level of protection from violence as adults already are. But I am convinced it will be a crucial step toward addressing gender-based violence and a logical follow-on to the Constitution, the Children’s Act itself and the Domestic Violence Act (No. 116 of 1998). In particular, it will in the medium- and long-term, reduce gender-based violence.

Resistance to the prohibition of corporal punishment is anticipated from various quarters, including the religious right (who claim that god instructs them to physically punish their children), senior officials in the Department of Social Development itself (who claim it didn’t do them any harm and that children cannot be disciplined any other way), and other sections of the population. Support from the gender sector would be most helpful in advocating for the prohibition; yet this sector has not only not come out strongly in support of prohibition, but has actually been known to advocate against it.

Violence against children in general (and corporal punishment in particular) is a form of gender-based violence and should be recognised as such. The truth is that the physical and sexual abuse meted out against children reflect the disregard of children’s rights generally in our society, and lay the groundwork for societal constructions of masculinity as prized and femininity as somehow less. It is precisely these constructions which create masculine aggression and entitlement and feminine compliance and victimisation.

We all know the consequences of living in a society which prizes masculinity and considers femininity somehow inferior. Still, they bear repeating:

South Africa is still the rape capital of the world, and has (according to the World Health Organisation) the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. It is a country in which a woman is killed every eight hours by her partner and in which over 800 children are killed a year, more than double the global average.


There is clearly something rotten in the state of South Africa and many years of activism have not reduced the numbers of victims. Why? What are we not doing? And the answer is not ‘not working with men’. That is no longer true, and the role of changing the construction of masculinity as a key element of ending gender-based violence is well recognised.

In truth, the situation is complex and subtle, but the short answer is that South African society provides fertile soil for these high levels of abuse because of its deeply patriarchal and misogynist character which glorifies socially constructed masculinity (strong, in charge, sexually active) and denigrates socially constructed femininity (weak, ineffectual and sexually passive).

What we’re not doing is recognising the profound effect that our tolerance for violence against children has on our tolerance for violence against women. Nowhere is this so clear as in attitudes towards and the use of corporal punishment on children. It seems to me to be a relatively small step from notions of parents’ right and entitlement to physically chastise their children to intimate partner violence and rape. Both are about power and control, both assume that abuse and violence are legitimate responses to feeling out of power and out of control. Both are intended to put the victim ‘in their place’ and to make tangible the power of the abuser.

The consequences of childhood adversity are many, wide-ranging and long-lasting. And what is becoming increasingly clear is that physical violence against children is the crucible in which adult physical and sexual violence is formed.

The links between experiencing severe physical abuse in childhood and adult functioning are better recognised than the serious consequences of even the so-called “little slaps”. We know now, with certainty, that the “little slaps” in early childhood can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the developing brain itself.[2] In addition, physical punishment can cause alterations in the dopaminergic regions of the brain associated with vulnerability to the abuse of drugs and alcohol.[3] These factors have, in turn, been shown to increase the likelihood of adult aggression, spousal abuse (in men) re-victimisation (in women) and child abuse.[4]

Part of the risk of allowing care-givers the right to ‘reasonably chastise’ their children is the road it opens for more severe abuse. Research done for her PhD thesis by Amelia Kleijn in the wake of the 2001 rape of nine-month-old Baby Tshepang, found that, for a group of ten convicted perpetrators of the rape of children under the age of three years:

  • All the respondents who participated in the study recalled their anger on the day that they raped a very young child.
  • While physical maltreatment alone was not found to relate to the later rape of a very young child, poverty, maltreatment, and attachment difficulties converged in these men; and
  • All reported experiencing violent punishment at the hands of their care-givers.

If we want to eliminate violence against women, we have to raise children in new ways, help them develop self-discipline, deal with conflict and differences without resorting to violence, and to be protective of the rights of others. Hitting teaches children the wrong lessons ― such as that it is acceptable to impose your will by force on someone else; that children have no say or rights or dignity; that bigger, stronger (more powerful) people are entitled to hurt those who are smaller and weaker (less powerful); that a violent response is an appropriate and socially sanctioned way of dealing with conflict and disagreement; that loving and hurting are somehow linked.[5]

In making sure that the clause prohibiting corporal punishment in the home, and that this is coupled with support for non-violent, nurturing parenting and positive discipline organisations in the women’s sector can take a significant step forward in ending gender-based violence.

Carol Bower

Carol Bower has worked to end violence against women and children for almost all of her professional life. She now lives in the middle of nowhere fulfilling the ageing hippy dream and making as much trouble as she can. She is currently working with Sonke Gender Justice on improving attitudes towards and the practice of parenting as a key strategy for preventing the sexual and physical abuse of children.

[2] Teicher M. 2002. The Neurobiology of Child Abuse. Scientific American, March 2002: 70.

[3] Sheu Y-S, Polcan A, Anderson CM, et al. Harsh corporal punishment is associated with increased T2 relaxation time in dopamine-rich regions. Neuroimage 2010;53:412-9.

[4] Gershoff, E. 2013. Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives. 7(3): 133–137

[5] Bower C. 2013. Prohibition of corporal and humiliating punishment in the home. PAN: Children Topical Guide. Accessible here.

There are a number of good places to find out more about the dangers and ineffectiveness of corporal punishment and about parenting. These are just a few of them:

The WGPD is a loose network of South African NGOs working to prohibit all forms of corporal punishment, including in the home, and to support nurturing non-violent parenting and positive discipline.

  • Global Initiative to end all Corporal Punishment of Children:                        

A very useful place to find the significant body of research on the negative consequences of corporal punishment for children and for society.

South Africa’s first and only high quality online parenting magazine that caters to a growing demographic of educated parents who are becoming increasingly conscious of how their parental decisions are impacting the health of their children, themselves and the environment.

A wide range of information on parenting in African contexts.