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Rape death prompts soul searching in SA

Reuters, AFP

The death of a Indian woman after being gang raped reverberated beyond Asia to SA, a country battling its own levels of sexual violence.

As India reels from the death of woman after a gang rape, questions have been raised about whether South Africans were doing enough to come to terms with their own crisis.

News of the 23-year-old's tragic death in a Singapore hospital where she had been taken for treatment prompted a groundswell of anger and introspection about why South Africa persistently has some of the highest incidences of rape in world.

Official statistics show there were almost 65 000 sexual offences in South Africa last year, but police estimate only one in 36 rape cases is reported.

Based on those figures it is possible 2.3-million South Africans were victims of sexual offences, out of a total population of 50-million.

So South Africa is all too able to empathise with the victims of horrendous acts of sexual violence. In addition it also has a large Indian population.

But events in Delhi and Singapore appear to have struck a painful chord in large part because of the subsequent protests in India, which raised difficult questions about whether South Africans were doing enough to come to terms with their own crisis.

"Here rapists attack everyone—from babies up to grannies and we sit and do nothing. A revolution is taking place in India," said commentator Pinky Khoabane.

"We need the good men to stand up," Khoabane said, decrying what she said was systemic pattern of femicide.

An estimated 28% of South African men have committed rape, according to data from the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the International Centre for Research on Women.

That compares to 24% of Indian men according to the same data.

South Africa often appears to have become accustomed to levels of sexual violence that would be considered intolerable in other countries.

In November six South African village boys, including one aged 10, were charged with rape and the murder of three other children, in a case that hardly made the newspapers.

South African President Jacob Zuma's rape trial—at which he was acquitted—and the filmed gang rape of a 17-year-old girl with a mental age of four were notable exceptions, and both sparked a national debate.

But analysts say that the general resignation about sexual violence has partly to do with who the victims are.

Based on statistics from Gauteng, researchers have shown that almost 89% of reported rapes involve black women, who are predominantly poor.

Some 58% of the victims were unemployed and 15% were under the age of 11, according to figures published in the journal Crime Quarterly.

The same data showed 16% of reported rape cases in South Africa involve gang rape.

In a heated Twitter debate on Saturday Zwelinzima Vavi, head of Cosatu, angrily dismissed claims sexual violence was caused by poverty or apartheid.

"No one can tell me that raping a three-month-[old] baby or 87-year-old granny or burning a library or vandalising a school is caused by poverty," he wrote.

"Poverty can't lead to an erection when seeing a 90-year or three-month-old."

"Yes, apartheid humiliated, dehumanised and made people feel valueless—its existence in the past is no excuse for current moral degeneration," he added.

Meanwhile, the body of the woman arrived back in New Delhi early on Sunday.

She had suffered brain injuries and massive internal damage in the attack on December 16, and died in hospital in Singapore where she had been taken for treatment.

She and a male friend had been returning home from the cinema, media reports say, when six men on a bus beat them with metal rods and repeatedly raped the woman. The friend survived.

Six suspects were charged with murder after her death.

A Reuters correspondent saw family members who had been with her in Singapore take her body back to their Delhi home in an ambulance with a police escort.

Ruling party leader Sonia Gandhi was seen arriving at the airport when the plane landed and Prime Minister Mannmohan Singh's convoy was also there, the witness said.

The body was later taken to a crematorium and cremated, news channels reported. Media were kept away but a Reuters witness saw the woman's family, New Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, and the junior home minister, RPN Singh, coming out of the crematorium.

The outcry over the attack caught the government off-guard. It took a week for Singh to make a statement, infuriating many protesters.

Protests

Issues such as rape, dowry-related deaths and female infanticide rarely enter mainstream political discourse in India.

Analysts say the death of the woman dubbed "Amanat", an Urdu word meaning "treasure", by some Indian media could change that, although it is too early to say whether the protesters calling for government action to better safeguard women can sustain their momentum through to national elections due in 2014.

Protesters have staged peaceful demonstrations in the capital New Delhi and in cities across India in the last few days to keep the pressure on Singh's government to get tougher on crime against women. Last weekend, protesters fought pitched battles with police.

Authorities, worried about the reaction to the news of her death on Saturday, deployed thousands of policemen, closed 10 metro stations and banned vehicles from some main roads in central New Delhi.

Most sex crimes in India go unreported, many offenders go unpunished, and the wheels of justice turn slowly, according to social activists, who say that successive governments have done little to ensure the safety of women.

Commentators and sociologists say the rape has tapped into a deep well of frustration many Indians feel over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership on social issues.

New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures. Government data show the number of reported rape cases in India rose by nearly 17% between 2007 and 2011. - Reuters, AFP

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