New gender equity Bill won’t solve rape crisis

Days that start like Tuesday, with the announcement that several young men gang raped a young woman in Soweto, filmed it, and circulated it, makes me want to curl up in a foetal position and weep.

On Monday the department of women, children and people with disabilities (and let us note immediately that this ministry is supposed to represent the interests of everyone except able bodied adult men) announced it would have difficulty fulfilling its mandate — they are short staffed, underfunded, and ill-represented at provincial level.

In my opinion, while their intention may have been good, this body is just a rubber stamp that says to international donors (who support many government initiatives) that government is concerned about anyone other than able bodied adult men.

Of concern is that the department’s strategic plan involves pursuing a gender equity Bill. This Bill has been rejected by a number of civil society organisations working for gender equality, because it serves to duplicate existing legislation; there is no budget for such a law; and it is unclear who will be responsible for implementing it.

In this meeting they rejected the Women’s Legal Centre’s assertion that this Bill would be ineffective, and pulled their blinkers a little tighter around their heads.

In 2010/11 66 196 sexual offences were reported. Many civil society organisations estimate that between one in five and one in nine women report their rape. If we use the conservative figures of one in five, it means that 330 980 sexual offences were actually committed in 2010/11.

More simply: 330 980 rapes per year is 906 rapes per day. This is 37 rapes per hour or one rape every two minutes. So in the three hours that the department of everyone and everything took to tell us about their lack of implementation and monitoring capacity, 90 sexual offences were committed.

In an effort to be fair, let me voice that the department is not responsible for preventing violence against women on their own. They are supposed to be supported in creating a South Africa where rape and sexual violence is reduced in partnership with a number of other departments. In a rape case, you need to visit a health care facility (department of health, department of social development), a police station (SAPS, perhaps support from an NGO), and a court (department of justice, National Prosecuting Authority, and maybe — if you’re very lucky — get a conviction from a magistrate from the department of justice & constitutional development).

As is clear, it is essential that departments work together for sexual offences to be successfully prosecuted, for convictions to increase, and for survivors to feel supported and informed throughout the process.

To put it bluntly, the departments do not.

When you report a case to the police you get a case number, which is different from the case number you get at the health facility. At the court, the case number is linked to the perpetrator’s name, not the survivor’s. None of this data is collected on a card that travels with the survivor so that she may have the information she needs about the case. This information is not stored on a central database to allow government (or the public) to follow the progress of a case.

In essence, at any one time, it is very difficult to track a rape case through the justice system. In addition there are few specialised staff members to support sexual offence survivors through this traumatic process.

It is hardly a wonder that in a 2008 Tshwaranang and Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation study on attrition, 20% of cases were withdrawn by the prosecutor at the request of the survivor. This is a clear indication that nobody is really working together to achieve a conviction or support a survivor, which perhaps is why our conviction rate is so devastatingly low — so prosecution is not something which many rapists have to fear.

In addition, sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum or just because people feel they can get away with it. It occurs because of the prevalence of myths and norms that suggest women’s bodies are there for the taking, and that promotes rape.

We learn social norms and myths from those around us — our peers, our families, our teachers, our pastors. Media and social media also play a big role in shaping norms.

Now one needs to question: what about the department of education? Its life skills programme does not contain information about violence against women, gender equality, or sexual and reproductive health rights. In fact, there is no national life skills programme manual or course.

What about the department of communication? Why don’t South Africans have information about our rights put up on every billboard spot available? They could afford to spend a few less bucks on national days for women, for children, for the disabled and spend a few more bucks on billboards that say “Real men don’t rape” or “Rape is not a right”, or “Men, your masculinity is not about what you can do to women. It’s about how you can support women in achieving their rights”. Sadly, that last one even made me shake my head because I can never imagine seeing a poster like that in South Africa.

Eyewitness News reported on Twitter that this was not an isolated incident. I’m not sure how they could ever have imagined it was. What is isolated though is each department’s response to violence against women and children.

This needs to be improved through partnerships with those on the ground who are supporting survivors, engaging in prevention programmes, and informing people of their rights. Without this, I anticipate that we might be spending many more days with headlines like these.

Jen Thorpe is a feminist writer and researcher, and the editor of She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University and is studying towards a Masters in Creative Writing at UCT.

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