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In South Africa, rape is linked to manhood

Celean Jacobson

Dumisani Rebombo had not been circumcised, did house chores considered girls' work and was sick of being taunted for not being a man.

Dumisani Rebombo had not been circumcised, did house chores considered girls’ work and was sick of being taunted for not being a man. So he took the only other course considered “manly” in his rural South African village: He raped a girl.

He was 15, the victim younger. Twenty years later he searched for the woman to beg her forgiveness—a rarity in a nation where a culture of sexual violence is deeply embedded in society.

Rebombo agreed to share his story as researchers presented findings on Thursday at an international conference outside Johannesburg that more than one in four South African men surveyed admitted to committing rape.

A recent report published by Interpol said South Africa had the highest rape rate among its member states.

Police figures record about 54 000 rapes in South Africa in 2006—nearly 150 per day, or one for every 925 people in the country.

That does not tell the whole story: advocates say many attacks go unreported because of the stigma and trauma.

In comparison, Americans reported one rape for every 2 642 people in 2006—roughly a third of the South African rate.

“Rape is an expression of male sexual entitlement,” said Rachel Jewkes, chief researcher of the survey.

“South Africa is an immensely patriarchal society. The history of the country has shaped the dominant forms of South Africa’s racially defined masculinities.”

Preliminary findings of the report, carried out by the respected government-funded Medical Research Council and released last month, were met with horror. But many gender and human rights activists were not surprised.

“This tells the story of many boys, of many men,” said Rebombo, now a 48-year-old divorced father of three.

His experience underscores the deep cultural roots of the problem in a country blighted by violent crime and the devastating emotional, social and economic legacy of apartheid’s brutal racial segregation.

When Rebombo was a teen he was cruelly taunted for not being “a man”.

Circumcision is considered a rite of passage by some—but his father had almost been killed in the often unsanitary and brutal operation, and swore his son would not be abused that way.

So Rebombo was subjected to daily, constant jeering. “I was viewed as not man enough,” said the large, soft-spoken man.

One way to prove manhood was rape.

Other boys pressured Rebombo to “teach a lesson” to one girl who did not want to go out with them. He resisted, fearful of his religious parents and their good standing in the community. Then he relented and a date was set. That Saturday, Rebombo was plied with beer and dagga to overcome his trembling.

“I had difficulty breathing ... I had never had sex before. I was terrified.”

The girl was brought to a field and Rebombo and another boy were left with her.

“He started raping her. She fought him. I was just there, dizzy with all the stuff. He just stood up and said: ‘Your turn.’ I was there on top of her,” he said, making a rocking motion with one hand.

Afterward, “she just ran home”, said Rebombo. He said he could not even recall after the rape if he had had an erection.

Guilty, and fearful she would tell, he avoided her and a year later moved to another village.

In Johannesburg in 1996, working for a faith-based organisation involved with unemployed mothers, he was struck by the women’s tales of abuse and bruises testifying to it. He started working with men to help stop the violence.

“That forced me to do my own introspection,” he said. “I felt I needed to go find her and apologise.”

So he went back to his village and tracked the woman down.

“I told her what I did those years back was wrong and I am here to ask for forgiveness.”

Through sobs, she told Rebombo she had since been raped by two other men. Married with children, she kept the assaults secret, but sometimes cringed when her husband touched her.

Her life had never been the same, she said.

But she accepted Rebombo’s apology and forgave him, saying it was difficult.

She also left him a task. “She told me: ‘Maybe you could teach other men out there not to do the same thing.”’

Today, Rebombo works for the Olive Leaf Foundation, helping parents and children deal with challenges including HIV/Aids, abuse and sexual violence.

“If more men would stand up and say ‘This is wrong,’ the better we can fight this carnage,” he said.

Rape in South Africa is “deeply embedded in ideas about manhood”, according to the study presented at the conference.

Researchers at this week’s conference acknowledged the sexism inherent in most cultures but highlighted the strong patriarchal nature of African culture.

In South Africa, many blame the rape statistics on the violence, repression, poverty and psychological degradations of the white supremacist, apartheid regime that ended 15 years ago.

“Apartheid made violence an instrument of control and violence became the norm,” said gender rights activist Mbuyiselo Botha. “Men would feel emasculated.” Angry and humiliated, they took out their frustrations then—and still today—on the weakest victims, women and children, activists say.

About 5,2-million of South Africa’s 50-million people are infected with HIV/Aids—the highest rate in the world.

Despite one of the world’s most advanced constitutions on human rights, traditional attitudes demeaning women persist and are perpetuated by the words and actions of leading figures in South Africa.

President Jacob Zuma, a proud polygamist with three wives, was acquitted of rape in 2006, but only after he acknowledged having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend.

Zuma’s remarks about women, sex and Zulu culture caused major controversy and there were ugly scenes outside the courtroom with his supporters burning pictures of the woman.

While Zuma now speaks against violence against women, the trial did “tremendous damage” to efforts to encourage more modern attitudes toward women, Botha said.

“Fifteen years into democracy one had begun to think that life had started to normalise. This was a wake-up call.”

Chief researcher Jewkes said rape in South Africa was “significantly associated” with childhood trauma and “abnormal” family structures caused by one or the other of the parents being forced to leave the household to seek work.

“Apartheid really destroyed South African families,” she said.

Only a third of the men in their sample said their fathers were often or always at home while two-thirds said their mothers were.

“We know that if children are being raised by relatives they are much more vulnerable to being abused,” Jewkes said, adding that 60% of women who report rape are assaulted by someone they know—with children this figure goes as high as 80%.

Researchers, who gave no margin of error, interviewed men from about 1 700 households from a representative cross-section of the population in rural areas in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Daily headlines of rapes point to botched investigations and more humiliation for women.

On Monday, the Star carried a front-page story about a convicted rapist given a four-year jail sentence.

The judge said he was being lenient because the perpetrator was “well-educated” and his victim was “a grown-up woman” who had been hitchhiking. - Sapa-AP

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