The last sixty years have seen an extraordinary rise of awareness about all the human behaviours or moral rules of which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. The International Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, could have not said it more clearly: we are all equal regardless of race, colour or sex and we are entitled to a significant number of freedoms.
Human Rights are on the table, but unfortunately not as a main course.
“Women and children are raped here all the time, we see it in the news and we know it happens in our community; it is our daily life” (Woman from Khayelitsha, Cape Town) As a part of the field research carried out by Rape Crisis in this area the last week, without blinking an eye, she explained how unsafe she feels in her community and how, too often, men drink too much alcohol and find it entertaining to abuse their wives or neighbours. Violence such as rape is a critical violation of the rights and an unjustifiable attack against a women’s dignity.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), defines discrimination against women as any “distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality between men and women”. Something is clearly not working; despite of the multiple legal frameworks founded on the basis of this convention and the South African Constitution, 174 women were raped per day in South Africa in between March 2013 and February 2014, with a total of 8 062 sexual offences reported to the South African Police Services (SAPS) in the Western Cape alone.
Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, is focus of great concern. This community is considered one of the most dangerous settlements of South Africa. The statistics speak for themselves: 1 421 aggravated robberies, 140 murders, 229 sexual crimes and 45 kidnappings have been reported this year according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). While these findings are alarming on paper the reality is even worse. In the field research done by Rape Crisis in which I participated, men and women from Khayelitsha confirmed that the numbers could have been far higher if all the victims had gone ahead and reported the crimes. They are frightened because the perpetrators can walk free and return to threaten them again.
Women in this settlement, 30km southeast of Cape Town, cannot walk alone in the street in the night, they are too scared of coming across a man that might want something from them, nor can they dress as they wish because they could prove to be a “temptation”. Furthermore, those who live in the most informal shacks, need to make sure they don’t use the toilets, which are located outside their houses in the bushes, during the night because that would put them in extreme danger. “I wake up several times during the night to check that everything is alright, you never know, they can break in any moment” (woman from the area of Harare, in Khayelitsha). Woman do not feel safe in their own houses.
Why is this happening? Are human rights, especially women’s rights, an aspiration too optimistic for a community such as this one? Why does rape take place? As the results of the research begin to emerge, lack of employment and the excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs are one cluster of reasons that local people are referring to. The other cluster centres around the ineffective criminal justice system and the fact that the police and the courts are not doing their jobs properly. Police take long to respond or don’t come out at all and many rapists are not found guilty and are released back into the community to rape again. In a free society, such as South Africa, with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, there is enough evidence to say that something needs to be done to help those whose rights are being constantly denied.
One of the men interviewed in Khayelitsha this week noted that “rape is not about not having a job or about drinking too much, it is about human dignity” And so it is. With the worldwide celebration of the Human Rights Day, we all should stand for what we are: humans. This is not about men, women, culture or religion, it is about fighting for our entitled and irrefutable dignity as human beings.
Human Rights are on the menu. Choose carefully.
Laura is studying human rights at the University of York and spent two weeks with Rape Crisis conducting field research in Khayelitsha.