Shutting down the blaming of women for rape

In Cape Town hundreds of protesters — dressed in black and red — marched on Parliament where they demanded that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete collect their memorandum of demands. (David Harrison/M&G)

In Cape Town hundreds of protesters — dressed in black and red — marched on Parliament where they demanded that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete collect their memorandum of demands. (David Harrison/M&G)

When Linda Zakiyya Chamani was 17-years-old, she knew that she was a woman, even though everyone else kept telling her to be a man. There was a stranger in particular, Chamani remembers, who thought that she should be raped for not being a man.

“I was a young child, I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I deserved it,” she recalls.

Chamani attempted to open a case with the police, believing the sexual assault was a targeted corrective rape, but she says that she was shunned because of her gender identity as a trans woman. She tried to reach out to her family, but they, too, had left her on her own.

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“Even my grandmother told me that I’m the one who is making myself a target because I identify as female. She said I’m supposed to be a man, and that by becoming a man I would not get abused as much as a woman,” Chamani remembers.

Chamani changed her life. She became passionate about the protection of transgender people and, at the age of 28, she is now a health advocacy officer for Gender Dynamix — a non-governmental organisation based in Cape Town.

She left her home in KwaZulu-Natal to live in Cape Town, where she says she has managed to improve her life. But violence against transgender people still remains prevalent in the country.

“We live in societies and families where they do not accept who we are and disown us and take away our privileges because of our gender identity,” she says. “Legal recognition is still a problem because even at Home Affairs some of the officials do not understand our situation.” 

On Wednesday afternoon, Chamani joined hundreds of women and gender non-conforming activists who marched en masse to mark the start of Women’s Month in South Africa. With her bright red lipstick, and her big hoop earrings, Chamani smiled among the protesters as she proudly lifted her rainbow-coloured LGBTI flag.

The #TotalShutdown protest has been mobilised by a group of women and gender non-conforming activists across all nine provinces in South Africa, as well as in Lesotho and Namibia. The aim is to raise awareness against gender-based violence and violence against children in South Africa, with protesters in each province handing over a memorandum of demands to government offices.

In Cape Town hundreds of protesters — dressed in black and red — marched on Parliament where they demanded that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete collect their memorandum of demands. Among the list of 24 demands handed to Parliament — and across the country — is that Parliament should have a special unit to deal with gender-based violence.

As the protesters arrived, the mood outside Parliament shifted. All around the crowd, people began to cry as they felt the weight of the moment, standing outside the gates to Parliament, singing struggle songs.

‘Wathint’ abafazi!” a protester bellowed over the loudspeaker.

“Wathint’ imbokodo!” the crowd responded.

Chulu Nkasela (19) has reached at least two turning points in her life. Standing among the protesters, the back of Nkasela’s legs bore the words: “Rapists rape people not clothes.”

When she was 8-years-old, Nkasela was nearly raped. It was at her grandmother’s house, where she had dutifully left her grandmother’s side to invite a family friend to eat. Her grandmother waited for her to return, and the moments passed with no sign of Nkasela. It was at that time her grandmother’s voice saved her, Nkasela said.

“I went to tell him that his food was ready and my grandmother noticed that I was taking long, so she started shouting that I should come down. That’s how I got out,” Nkasela explained.

Ten years later, her friend was almost raped too. When Nkasela saw the way her friend was being blamed for what had taken place, she had had enough.

“We were in Grade 12. The school asked her what did she do. Even the aunties at our hostel believed that she asked for it,” Nkasela said. “Afterwards, she found out that guy had a girlfriend and then that girlfriend also believed that she asked for it. How can women do that to other women?”

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Initially — like Chamani — Nkasela had blamed herself for the rape. But she soon accepted it was never her fault.

“The problem is not women. It has never been women. It has always been men, and them not being taught and understanding these things,” she says.

Nkasela works as an intern at Equal Education, where she has witnessed the impact of sexual abuse allegations levelled against Doron Isaacs, the organisation’s former treasurer, that has dogged the organisation.

Equal Education has now begun the work of interrogating its policies and investigating the allegations, and Nkasela is among its members who fiercely believes that the onus lies on men to change, and that women have been unfairly blamed for gender-based violence.

“At EE [Equal Education] we’ve been having this scandal and we’ve always asked questions as a civil society organisation about what are we doing for our members to make sure that they’re as safe as possible,” she said

“You get institutions teaching women how to be safe, but it never goes back to boys. Gender based violence and consent should also be taught to men, and not just to girls” she said.

While Nkasela and Chamani have had their own personal experiences of violence, there were others who stood at their sides in solidarity to demand that change must happen in South Africa. In the 2016/17 year, police indicated that there were 109 reported cases of rape a day in the country. The police statistics come with a disclaimer of being limited, because not all rape cases in the country are reported to police, and the actual statistics may therefore be more dire.

Thandeka Xaba-Petersen came out to support women and activists such as Nkasela and Chamani on Wednesday in the hopes that mass protests against gender-based violence can one day come to an end, signalling the safety of women and children in the country.

“This whole thing to me is basically just something that we have to do for the very last time ever, because hopefully this is seen by people — especially government— and there won’t be women and children dying from abuse and domestic violence anymore,” Xaba-Petersen said. 

Chamani no longer believes that she is to blame or deserved the rape that violated her more than 10 years ago. She is now empowered by her own activism to help bring about gender equality in South Africa.

“I’ve made a support structure for myself and I’m advocating for other people’s rights because no-one lives in isolation: we should as a community come together to enforce those rights,” she says. 

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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