Rape services under threat

Why does our government bother with Women's Day and with speechifying about gender equality when it still isn't taking the tsunami of rape in our country seriously enough to provide effective support for survivors, and swift and meaningful justice?" Janice* survived a rape a few decades ago.

Her vehemence echoes a number of other women who have publicly expressed angry discontent with the "showpiece" nature of activities in August. Women like Helen Moffet, on BooksLive, in a Women's Day rant that went viral, for example: "What you have reduced the 1956 Women's March to is a travesty… the thousands of brave women who took part that day are squirming in their graves at your appalling, ongoing, almost casual abandonment of this country's women, especially the poorest ones."

A lot of this anger was triggered by the ironically-timed discovery, just before Women's Day, of the serious threat to civil society services for rape survivors. Services are being forced to scale back due to funding issues, and this sends an unfortunate message from South African society to survivors and rapists alike: we don't take rape seriously.

Which is shocking, given the rape statistics: around 55 000 crimes of rape or sexual violence are reported each year, according to the South African Police Service's crime report for 2010/2011, but a Medical Research Council survey in late 2010 provides evidence that about 24 in every 25 rapes actually go unreported. This could mean that well over a million rapes take place in our country every year, with the overwhelming majority of survivors being women.

No boundaries
"Rape is not something that happens in a world apart from your own. Right now, as we speak, it's happening just up the street from you, no matter how nice the people and fancy the houses," says Emma*, a multiple rape survivor whose first rape was at the hands of a family member and who was later raped at school.

Rape does not affect the survivor alone. Spouses, parents, children, friends and many more feel the ripple effects.

"I recently found that out for myself," says Emma, who will soon publish a book about <a href="http://www.emmaslov.blogspot.com" target="_blank">her experiences</a>. "A man who as a teenager witnessed, but didn't take part in, one of the rapes contacted me. He had been so traumatised by what he saw that he could not bring himself to have children; he was afraid that a boy might grow up to rape, while a girl would be at risk of rape."

Secondary victimisation
Sexual violence in this country is one of the worst human rights issues women face. And despite the systemic nature of the beast (research suggests that rape emerges from and is condoned by a severely stressed and unequal society which remains tremendously patriarchal) most women must face it largely alone – and they know it.

This is one powerful reason why so few women report rape; they fear secondary victimisation, with good reason. At age 15, Thembi* told her teacher of her rape. She was taken to a social worker, who told her she "should have been more careful", and was subjected to a painful physical exam by a forensic nurse while a male doctor watched, his presence never explained to the traumatised girl.

In a 2011 statement, Rape Crisis spoke of the "extremely high levels of secondary trauma faced by a survivor. […] The risk of treating a rape survivor insensitively or inappropriately is high, particularly if officials lack the necessary interpersonal skills, have not received specialised training or are inexperienced."

"Effective support" and "swift and meaningful justice", the statement said, would require interventions at every stage: specially trained police and care rooms in every station, courts sensitive to the trauma experienced by the survivor (such as the now-defunct specialised Sexual Offences Courts) and counsel and support throughout and after the judicial process.

Perfect storm
What support there is for survivors – and there has never been anything like enough – has historically been provided by civil society in the form of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), usually with government support. Yet in Women's Month, many of these overburdened NGOs are feeling a funding crunch.

Founded in 1976, Rape Crisis in Cape Town is the oldest such NGO in the country. Today, it faces what director Kathleen Dey calls a "perfect storm" in terms of funding problems: major international donors are being more careful and critical of where they spend their funds and how effectively the money is used to meet their goals. This means husbanding of available resources means funding is hotly contested. Smaller international organisations are prioritising countries considered more needy than us, taking the (quite reasonable, many feel) view that South Africa should be able to fund certain services itself; local foundations and corporates likewise have become more careful in these times. "The hardest hit sector is social justice," says Dey.

Rape Crisis has had to retrench all but one of its permanent staff members. It will continue to offer a much-reduced service using volunteers.

These are issues which other NGOs are staring down as well: Barbara Kenyon of GRIP (Greater Rape Intervention Programme) in Nelspruit says: "Last year we went through a big retrenchment process due to funding constraints [during which] 40% of our staff was retrenched. This year we've had to close down three care rooms in police stations, with more to follow."

Retrenchments and scaled-down efforts have a long-term effect on our capacity as a society to cope with this crisis. The skills, research and experience that reside within the NGOs are precious, says Dey. When funding disappears, we risk losing hard-earned human capital.

 "The uncertain nature of the funding for NGOs creates problems, such as a high turnover of staff," agrees Lisa Vetten of Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre. "You can't offer the salary that attracts experienced staff and you're constantly having to retrain."

Loss of capacity and disruption of continuity aside, the limited nature of services available sends the wrong message to both perpetrators and survivors.

"High quality services for victims of rape […] are very important in rape prevention because they send a message to society that rape is serious and will not be tolerated," says Professor Rachel Jewkes, director of the Medical Research Council's gender and health research unit in a July 2012 study called Rape perpetration: a review. If South Africa does not invest in effective and widely available services, we are simply perpetuating the idea that rape is no big deal. A good support system would tell those who rape that their behaviour is utterly unacceptable, while at the same time affirming that the survivors have experienced something unjust and violent, an abuse of their human rights.

But we're not, and the question is why. "Our government is constitutionally obligated to provide statutory and essential services to victims of rape and domestic violence," says Fiona Nicolson of the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme. "We should not be begging government for funding; we should be standing together and demanding it. Non-profit [organisations] are performing a vital service for the country. Until government gets its act together, the violence will simply go on and on."

Bad justice
Effective criminal justice is equally important: "Strong legislation, with goo  d definitions of crimes, is an essential part of prevention. Overall we must strengthen the legal framework of gender equity in all areas of social life, including transforming gender dynamics in daily interactions, for example, through implementing effective policies in workplaces and by transforming the many aspects of education to promote gender equity in schools and school curriculum. In many settings these require legislation backed by systems-wide interventions," says Jewkes's report.

No matter the laws or good intentions, our criminal justice system is simply not doing the job that's needed.

"Research in Mpumalanga revealed that 120 reported cases of rape only resulted in one conviction," says Vetten. "The fact that we don't have a functional criminal justice system means that many rapists think they'll just get away with it – and they're probably right. That in itself sends a message to society."

She says that people are sensitive to signals like this.

"With the World Cup Courts, we showed that when we really want to get it right to have speedy and effective justice, we can. But the fact that 'getting it right' seemed only to matter when international attention was focused on the country left a lot of people drawing their own conclusions as to the value placed on them, and the seriousness with which their experiences are treated when there are no international visitors around."

According to a June 2012 statement by Nikelwa Tengimfene, chief director of the government's justice, crime prevention and security cluster, a task team has been established "to investigate the resuscitation of Sexual Offences Courts, which have shown impressive conviction rates in certain parts of the country in the past". Will this task team be more action than talk, as the gap between the incidence of rape and convictions of rapists continues to widen, the NGOs ask.

Given the scale of the problem, rape justifies at least as much energy and publicity as we're currently (and quite rightly) devoting to rhino poaching. Why it's not receiving it – why rape services are in dire straits – is surely something that Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and other women who fought for justice in 1956 would like us to tackle in their name.

* Names withheld on request

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