Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Anonymity a rape survivor’s right

While we appreciate that Naomi Wolf’s piece, “Cloaking rape victims fosters myths” (January 21), draws attention to the myths that make reporting a rape difficult, there are significant reasons why the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust believes that the anonymity of the rape survivor should be protected.

The points raised by Wolf are valid. The accused is named, but the accuser is not, and this has historically been based on protecting women from the social shame associated with being raped. Wolf is right that hiding the identity of rape survivors perpetuates the idea that there is something to be ashamed of, when in fact there most certainly is not.

Yet there are problems with the assumption that the naming of the more than 68 000 people who reported sexual offences in the 2009-2010 crime statistics would make a difference to the way these crimes are prosecuted, or to a system that does not want to prosecute rapists. In addition, there are several significant reasons why protecting the privacy of rape survivors (or “accusers”, as Wolf calls them) is critical to a system that empowers survivors and is thus more able to prosecute rapists effectively.

An empowered survivor is key to an effective trial, because a survivor who feels safe and respected, who has information about the system and her/his case, and has access to choice about the parts she/he would like to participate in is more likely to stay in the system until the end of the trial and testify strongly.

Even before that, a survivor who is supported when reporting the rape is more likely to give a clear and coherent statement and is more able to give evidence. Essentially, a criminal justice system that empowers survivors is more able and likely to result in convictions where they are due. This is all feasible without the ­survivor being named.

Rape is a crime that systematically disempowers a person. It removes a person’s access to choice, respect and safety. Often, after being raped, a survivor has no idea what to do because the levels of legal literacy in South Africa are extremely low and information on how the system works is difficult to access.

When survivors report the rape, they enter into a system that they in all likelihood do not understand. They do not understand their role and responsibility, they do not understand the difference between a civil and a criminal case and, most significantly, they are often not fully informed about the role they are expected to play, even if they ask. There is no positive duty on criminal justice officials to inform survivors in the same way they inform rapists.

Wolf is right that other crimes require that the accuser is also named, but rape is a crime that is unique in that survivors are often blamed, disrespected, treated insensitively and their behaviour and moral integrity scrutinised beyond that of the victims of other crimes. In addition, the fact of the rape is also the cause of extreme pain to those close to a rape survivor. This intentional process of scrutiny is conducted in the course of most court cases.

Yet the survivor of a rape is relegated to the role of a witness in the state’s case against the accused. An accused can choose to defend him or herself. A rape survivor does not have access to legal representation in the same way that the accused does, neither does the survivor have the right to cross-examine the accused about the accused’s behaviour in the way that the accused can cross-examine the survivor. A rape survivor’s decision to report is a personal one. Despite reporting, survivors may choose not to inform their family, employer or friends. This may relate to social stigma, but it may also come from a desire to protect loved ones from the pain they will feel if they found out the survivor was raped. By naming the survivor in public, without providing suitable psychosocial support to the survivor, family and friends, further trauma is caused to the community.

Making the names of survivors public will subject many survivors to media scrutiny. It may also subject them to a trial by media, particularly when the accused has a high profile. This only serves to protect high-profile perpetrators.

A rape survivor’s name in the press is thus vulnerable to threat, intimidation, shaming attitudes, even condemnation. With estimates as low as one in nine women reporting rape, the trauma caused by making their identity known will only add to the overwhelming disincentive to report the rape or lead them to drop the charges.

Perhaps in a system where all accusers are equipped with the legal literacy to demand their rights from the criminal justice system and are provided with adequate support during the proceedings, they would feel brave enough to choose to make their identity known. Unfortunately, that is not the state of affairs today.

In the interim, Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust supports survivors’ right to dignity, their right to choice, their right to privacy and their right to anonymity.

Jennifer Thorpe is a researcher and advocacy coordinator at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. For more information, visit the website.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Life Esidimeni inquest postponed until August 30

The lawyer for the bereaved families argued that Dr Makgabo Manamela’s requests for postponements have a negative impact on the families of the deceased who seek closure

RECAP: Mbeki tells ANC that land without compensation goes against...

‘This would be a very serious disincentive to investment,’ says Thabo Mbeki in a document arguing that the ANC should not proceed with the Constitutional amendment of section 25

More top stories

SIU to investigate tenders between water and sanitation department and...

The president has signed a proclamation for the Special Investigating Unit to investigate R474-million in tenders

South Africa’s audit independence tops World Bank rankings

Only two countries received a perfect score in ​​latest report on national audit institutions

In South Africa, only 5% of chief executives are women

Only 5% of chief executives are women and the gender pay gap is most pronounced in the top JSE-listed companies, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers...

How to apply for the Covid-19 R350 grant

Asylum seekers with valid permits and caregivers will now also be allowed to apply for the reinstituted social relief of distress grant
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×