Nirbhaya and “one small incident of rape”

Did you ever wonder how much a rape is worth in the marketplace or at the governmental level? No? Neither have I, but apparently some do. Earlier this month, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley raised a storm of protest when he reflected, “One small incident of rape in Delhi advertised world over is enough to cost us millions of dollars in terms of lower tourism.” The “one small incident” was the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman, now known as the Nirbhaya case. Nirbhaya means fearless.

When protests exploded all around him, the Finance Minister regretted his words, and of course the ways in which they had been “misconstrued”. As so often happens, the perpetrator becomes victim if he argues long enough, has a big and high enough pulpit, has loads of money and moneyed friends, and is a man. Check, check, check, and check.

As witness to his recantation, the formal, published version of the Finance Minister’s talk removed the word “small.”

While the diminishment of a terrible event of violence against a woman, and of violence against women, was horrible, and according to many of the responses and critiques much worse, the reduction of sexual violence to an economic equation is equally problematic and wrong. If the `one small incident of rape’ only cost, say, a thousand dollars, would it then be fine? Would it then not be a matter of concern for India’s Finance Minister? Is finance exclusively and only a matter of hard, cold cash, and curiously that of other nations?

There are calls – from the victim’s family, from women’s groups, and from the general citizenry – for the Finance Minister to resign. It’s not enough. Words of repentance and regret are fine, but they do not suffice. Arun Jaitley is part of State power. He has been for years, both in the opposition and now in Cabinet. Let him and his colleagues say less and do more. If he and his colleagues want to show any kind of remorse, show it in the national budget. Invest in those organisations in India that are sisters to organisations such as Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust in South Africa, organisations made up of women and men, made up of individuals and communities, hard at work at the coalface of sexual violence. Don’t talk about the millions of dollars lost to “one small incident of rape.” Invest the millions of dollars, rupees, rand in one major issue: stopping violence against women. Be fearless.

Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg writes at Women In and Beyond the Global and at Africa Is a Country, and is Director of the Women’s Studies Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament. After all, the very foundation of its colonial decorum is being questioned by many, and it has recently done little to indicate the integrity, efficacy and ethics that one would expect from the arm of government tasked with oversight.

Our President, it seems, can be both lawless and celebrated by ‘honourable’ members in the plenary, and we the public are supposed to sit back whilst our tax and VAT are spent on refurbishments rather than services. When things get too sensitive, Parliament is simply put on hold, while the party asking the real and only question the nation wants the President to answer is thrown out.

But there is more to the working of Parliament than just the plenary. The plenary is, around the world, an opportunity for grandstanding and heckling. The work of Parliament happens in Parliamentary Committee meetings. It is here that legislation is debated, that oversight is proposed and undertaken, that opportunities for public participation are facilitated, and that ‘cooperative governance’ (as yet unsuccessful) is considered. So what does it mean when the number of committees is cut, whilst the number of Departments they are required to oversee grows? This question is particularly pertinent for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where the number of Committees stands at a paltry eleven.

Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what the focus of the NCOP should be. As the Council of Provinces, the focus is essentially provincial. Yes, national budgets and legislation are (or should be) considered there, but when it comes to oversight and public participation, the focus is clearly on the nine individual provinces. This is important because much of South Africa’s spending happens at this level, and even more so at the municipal level.

Consider the budget of the Department for Social Development, for example. This money is dispersed to provincial Departments, who can pick and choose the areas they spend on defined, purportedly, by provincial interests. Social Development is responsible for a number of things via their funding of NGOs – shelters, drug and alcohol abuse programs, social workers in the province, Thuthuzela Care Centres, children’s rights, the rights of people with disability, and support for the many abused women in South Africa. But what happens when these critical areas do not receive sufficient funding? What happens when Parliament doesn’t notice? What happens when it has been redesigned not to notice?

Perhaps that sounds very conspiratorial – a grand government scheme to get away with things. But when you consider that the Portfolio Committee on Social Development only considers social development issues, and the Select Committee on Social Services considers issues of social development, health, human settlements, home affairs, and water and sanitation, then you have to ask, how is the Committee supposed to adequately or regularly check whether the DSD is adequately funding NGOs? The truthful answer is it can’t. And if the Portfolio Committee doesn’t get around to it, then NGO funding doesn’t get checked at all.

The same could be said for women’s issues. At a Portfolio Committee level there is the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency. This committee is tasked with oversight over the Department of Women in the Presidency, which to date has not clarified what it is that they will actually be doing. Their website still speaks to issues of children and disability, hangovers from the previous department. They don’t know what their budgetary allocation will be for this year. Even when they are called before the Committee, they can’t answer. So the work of that Committee is focussed on clarifying the role and responsibilities of the Department of Women in the Presidency, and on hearing from the Commission for Gender Equality. What happens then when women on the ground, the 27 plus million women in South Africa, are not receiving services appropriate to their needs?

The task of looking at what is happening at the provincial level would fall to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yes, you read that right. This Committee, like the previous one mentioned, is tasked with being an oversight giant. Issues that fall under the mandate of this committee include cooperative governance, traditional affairs, public services and administration, youth, women, and intergovernmental relations. You’ll notice that local government falls in there – which means that every time there is a municipality in crisis it is this committee that must respond. What does that mean for the rights of women? When will those be considered to be in crisis?

The new configuration of committees in the National Council of Provinces has severely hindered the ability of Parliament to support and further women’s rights, or to consider the needs of the numerous NGOs that fund them. The revised structure makes it impossible to adequately fulfil its task as the institution guarding democracy. We should all be very concerned.

Helen Johnston

Don’t let it happen again

“If you’re pushing a woman to change her behaviour to ‘prevent’ rape, you’re really saying ‘make sure he rapes the other girl’”. I saw this phrase attached to an image of a woman cowering over. She was being pressed down by white text. Capitalised letters shouting, “DON’T” over and over again: “DON’T GO OUT ALONE/ DON’T DRINK/ DON’T LET YOU’RE GUARD DOWN/ DON’T SMILE/ DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT/ DON’T TRUST THOSE GUYS/ DON’T GIVE HIM YOUR NUMBER/ DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO YOURSELF/ DON’T WEAR THAT SHORT SKIRT/ DON’T OPEN THE FRONT DOOR/DON’T LIVE ALONE/DON’T FEEL SAFE. “ I am ‘the other girl’. It’s already happened to me but the chorus of “DON’TS” haven’t changed. There’s simply the added refrain of A-G-A-I-N. The compounded pressure of making sure it doesn’t happen to you for a second time.

SAPS victim-blaming


Post-rape, self-care becomes part of survival. You have to take on your physical, emotional and psychological struggles to make every day as close to ordinary as you can manage.  Physically, you often have to build an emotional and psychological bridge back to a body that feels like it betrayed you.  I’ve got a gym membership I can only sort of kind of afford and yoga has been my attempt to speak to the vessel I’m trying to re-attach to mind-heart me.  But in the five minute public space between the gym and where I live, I’m told to carry myself carefully.  Pre-rape, my mother would tell me to always assert myself with street harassers who thought that they were entitled to me because we happened to be sharing a pavement.  After the fact our conversations now sound like this:

Me: Hi mom…nothing, just got back from yoga
Mom: It’s 8 pm
Me: I know
Mom: I’d prefer if you go in the morning. You shouldn’t be walking the streets of Cape Town at night.
Me: I wish you that you didn’t feel like you need to say that.
Mom: I wished we lived in a world where I didn’t have to.

The cautions come from a place of love and helplessness – a want to protect. Shadowboxing potential sexual threat is such a norm of women’s lives that it took me a year to accept that I couldn’t have prevented a crime committed against me.  The details of that night have spent so much time on the cutting room floor of my mind. I’ve spent so much time replaying the clips and editing my behaviour in hopes of a different outcome but never thought to do the same for his.  My mental chorus of, “If I Hadn’t” is just a reconstruction of the “DON’TS” I’d always heard. “IF I HADN’T BEEN DRUNK”, “IF I HADN’T GONE OUT THAT NIGHT”, “IF I HADN’T LET HIM KISS ME”, “IF I HADN’T LEFT WITH HIM”, “IF I HADN’T ASKED HIM TO HELP ME FIND MY WAY HOME”. It’s a parade of shame and guilt. On some days these horns blare louder than others. It’s the reason it took me two weeks to report what had happened to me. It’s taken two counsellors to interrupt this message.

One I’ve only met on Skype and the other is a live human being I see every week. Both come from organisations that have mounted a collective challenge against victim-blaming: the Jes Foord Foundation and the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust respectively. Both provide a space where the details of your ordeal are taken as acts of survival. They gift spaces to counter the toxic narratives of, “You should have done more,” or, “You could have done better”. They provide some of the few spaces as a rape survivor where you aren’t put on trial; psychological safe havens where your story isn’t jostled around, interrogated or poked for flaws. From court rooms to police stations to sidewalks to bars to homes to classrooms, we live in a society built for the comfort of rapists; one that speaks their language and one which disseminates their excuses as truth. The safe spaces provided by these organisations are the few concrete walls that have been built against a world where 97 percent of sexual assailants walk free.

Dela Gwala

Dela Gwala is a full-time feminist and post-grad student at UCT who writes in the hours stolen from her thesis. She helps manage the South African branch of the largest intersectional feminist page on Facebook, Guerrilla Feminism.

Finding the right words

I have struggled to sit down and write about the rape, torture and murder of Gift Makau in Ventersdorp last Friday for days now. The mix of ugly and disturbing emotions that battle within me for expression is something to be avoided. I hate the grief, pain and anger I feel and how they permeate my days. How to say what needs to be said? How to find words, the right words?

Even after almost twenty years of working in the field of sexual violence and violence against women I still have little or no idea why men rape. So often people ask this question both in formal and in informal conversations. Why? I sidestep the answer, I dance around it, I avoid the standard rhetoric and the psychological theories. None of them do it for me. None of them give an explanation that would lead to a solution, a cure, a correction. Rehabilitation of sex offenders is a contentious issue with many believing that it is seldom successful. Certainly our rape rates in South Africa indicate that nothing is slowing this problem down.

To make it a problem of men or to cast women continuously in the passive light of victim is not an answer that I like. Sex is something that happens between men and women. Rape is something that happens between men and women. What is that “between” space? What happens there? The same thing happens between two women or between two men having sex. It is not the province of one gender or one kind of sexual act. It is a like a continuous ongoing conversation of enormous complexity. We bring ourselves, or parts of ourselves, to that conversation and it continues to compel us all. We have to begin to talk about what happens between us. To find the words, the right words.

In the end I decided to address my words to the man that raped and killed Gift Makau. At Rape Crisis we never comment about the motives of the perpetrator of rape. We never claim to know what he is thinking or feeling or what drives him. When journalists or researchers ask us we always refer them to an expert from an organisation that works with offenders. For once I want to break that rule.

To the man that killed Gift Makau: “How lost are you to your own humanity? What made you like that, what shaped you? What choices, if any, did you make that lead you down this path? Could you even answer these questions? What makes you think that you can change something that is not a personal choice? As if you could change your race? Or the fact that your mother gave birth to you? Or the placement of your internal organs in your body? These are facts of your identity. Just as being a lesbian was a fact of her identity. You can never change that fact.

“Just as you can never change the fact that she has sisters and brothers. All across South Africa and all around the world she has sisters and brothers that rage, and sorrow and mourn for her. We will fight this fight to make you know, just as you know your own name, that she is who she was and always will be. There are many, many more like her who will live lives of strength and courage and integrity and never stop asserting their right to do so even in the face of acts such as yours.”

Kathleen Dey is Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.