Violence against women is a symptom of a dread disease

By Margie Orford


Rape Crisis is an organisation founded 35 years ago in the Western Cape to counsel rape survivors and to support them through a hostile court system.

Thirty-five years is a long time to have a crisis, which is defined as a “dangerous or worrying time, a critical moment, a turning point in a disease”.

Why do women still need the same counselling, the same support in an adversarial court system, but in ever-increasing numbers?

Our post-1994 constitution affords women full and equal rights. There has been reform in legislation – the Sexual Offences Act, for example – and a few police stations and hospitals have specially trained staff. So what is it that women want?

That was the question which perplexed Sigmund Freud, a doctor who cared deeply about his patients. Famously, Freud failed to answer his own question.

It amazes me when gifted men fail to see the obvious, so let’s spell it out again for all the men in South Africa.

Women want what men want: political rights, economic parity and a safe, warm house where nobody hits them. Women are people, after all, just like men.

And none of us likes to be messed with – and if we are, we don’t like to be ignored and we certainly don’t like seeing the people who mess with us getting off scot-free. Women do not want to live in a South Africa that is notorious at home and abroad for the astounding levels of sexual violence and the infrequency with which perpetrators are jailed. And, I suspect, neither do most men.

On Women’s Day, on August 9, we remembered the 1956 march by 20000 women of all races on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The women who marched were refusing, on behalf of the South African nation, to accept the pass laws that restricted the movement, work and family life of all black people in South Africa. When freedom from the pass laws finally arrived in 1994, it was marvellous … except for the spectre of sexual violence that stalks our streets, homes and workplaces.

The threat of rape, very real in South Africa, restricts a woman’s movement outside of her home and threatens her happiness and her bodily integrity inside it.

We must stop this.

Sexual violence is inextricably bound up with our violent history and with South Africa’s unrelenting poverty, but there are other roots too. These include the careless machismo; the bullying sense of entitlement that pervades South African public spaces as much as its private spaces. It makes too many South African men – rich and poor – deaf to a woman’s “no”.

How to make them listen?

Violence has a grammar. It is part of a social language, a brutal one-way conversation that we ignore at our peril. It is rather like ignoring the symptoms of a dread disease. One can pretend that a malignant lump is not there, that a recurring cough is nothing, that the numbness creeping through one’s soul is imagined. That will not stop the cancer, the TB, the depression from killing you.

Rape, the most intimate form of violence, is above all the symptom that something is sick in the body politic and in the most intimate spaces between men and women. The place where there should be life and love and conversation.

Pretending it doesn’t happen makes no difference to the pernicious effect it has on the bodies and the minds of so many women. And it is eating at the soul of our society. It is killing our children; it is killing us.

The poor, overworked doctor that must treat this sick patient, our South Africa, is a criminal justice system that is stretched to breaking point. However, the failure to ensure that rapes are reported to the police, that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) brings these cases to trial, that the perpetrators are sentenced, compromises the health of our democracy in the most fundamental way.

Our weak and faltering system must be healed, and we as citizens – private, state and corporate – have to do it.

It has been said that how a society treats its women is a measure of its civilisation. South Africa has failed this test, but it is a test we can attempt again. So how do we avoid the blame game and find a way to pass?

Firstly, it is essential that each one of us do something if we want the centre of our society to hold. There are many women’s organisations to which you can donate money, time and, where appropriate, skills. The cash goes to counselling rape survivors – about 600 of them each year in the case of Rape Crisis. This slow and gentle treatment is vital, as it enables a survivor to reclaim herself and her body and to continue with her life. The cash also goes to offering support to survivors whose cases make it to court – about 1500 annually.

The forensic experts, the cops and the prosecution have to treat the survivor’s body as a crime scene – which is what it is – but often they end up making things worse than necessary for the survivor. The woman’s evidence is the prosecution’s main weapon in the trial, and it is crucial to ensure a conviction.

It is hard enough talking about intimate sexual details in public, let alone describing a rape to a group of often hostile and disbelieving strangers. Court support helps the survivor hold her fragile and intimate story together.

Kath Dey, director of Rape Crisis, says: “From each rape survivor’s case that we support, we learn about what is broken in our society and in the system. From that we learn how and where to fix. Right now, we see that the NPA is not hungry to prosecute. They are demoralised.

“Defence lawyers have assistants, they have secretaries, they have laptops. The prosecutors have nothing. If they are lucky there is the clerk of the court who will tell them what is on the roll for that day. If you ring a prosecutor the phone will just ring and ring in an empty office. There’s no one there to do their typing, there’s not anyone there to even take a message.”

South Africa’s criminal justice system – from the police all the way through to the courts to the prisons – is flawed and stressed, but if perpetrators were effectively prosecuted and jailed, this would act as both deterrent and punishment. The alternative is vigilantism and mob justice.

But at the root of this complex judicial problem is something quite simple. Staffing, training and logistics. Come on, government. Sort it out.

The cops, by the way, don’t even have computers. Surely the business community, as hard-pressed as it is in the recession, can donate computers and training? How else are we going to catch the bad guys?

What women want is simple. We want our rights, political, social, economic and sexual. We expect that the society of which we compromise more than half the population will ensure that we enjoy these rights, free from violence and persecution.

After all, women hold up half the sky. And the sky is the only place where the rainbow — national or otherwise – is visible.

  • Orford is patron of Rape Crisis
This entry was posted in Advocacy by rapecrisisblog. Bookmark the permalink.

About rapecrisisblog

We have a vision of a South Africa in which rape survivors suffer no secondary trauma, and are supported throughout their interaction with the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Our mission is to promote an end to violence against women, specifically rape, and to assist women to achieve their right to live free from violence. Rape Crisis Cape Town seeks to achieve its mission through counselling and training of women, thereby reducing the trauma experienced by rape survivors, and encouraging reporting of rape and the conviction of rapists.

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