Thursday, March 31, 2011

South Africa's Rape Culture - Should We Care?

South Africa, has a problem with rape so pervasive and multifaceted that when you hear about the statistics or the horrible examples it's pretty close to mandatory to block out the subject and think about something else.

One in three men admit to rape and twenty-five percent of women are willing to say they are victims despite the shame.  Reuters offers a frequency statistic so shocking, you might find it unbelievable:
South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, including child and baby rape, with one person estimated to be raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations.
How did this situation happen?  What can be done to turn this culture of rape around to a culture of respect between the sexes?  What can we, who are not in South Africa but have our own rape cultures on a smaller scale, learn from looking to South Africa?

Like most overwhelming social malfunctions, the South African rape epidemic has multiple factors.  You might even call them tributaries or streams flowing together and joining into a big flood of misery.  One player is the South African policy of apartheid, which harshly divided the country on racial lines.  Jobs for black Africans, when available, were located far away from where blacks were allowed to live, money was marginal, social services and education nonexistent.  Tribal family structures and support gave way to children in rags, underfed, with nobody but grandma to parent in what passes for home.

Another player is HIV.  The first white South Africans were diagnosed with AIDS in 1982, the first black in 1987.  At first, it seemed that, with international help, South Africa would have the same HIV/AIDS experience as the rest of Africa, but ignorance, denial, and political maneuvering let the virus penetrate deeply into family structures.

Amid the ignorance, much of it spread by the government, was the belief that sex with a virgin cures HIV/AIDS, a big contributor to the child rape statistics quoted above from Reuters - the article vividly describes the risks of being a black South African child today.

As in other parts of the world, where there are extreme stressors and families are destroyed, young men form gangs as substitute families, and the prevailing culture in those gangs is macho, entitled, seeing women and girls as property and objects of status.  "When I raped my cousin," one 14-year-old says, "I didn't know I was going to get AIDS, and I didn't know that it was rape."

Veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the best description of the problems and potential solutions in this two-part piece for NPR.  She interviewed Romi Sigsworth with the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation about her study of rape investigations and prosecutions in Part 1.  Part II describes the effort of South African social workers to make some inroads, especially with young teen boys.

What about the boys?  Are they motherless monsters?  How do you turn this flood of entitled, socially-desperate rage against women back into humane relationships and hopefully a new generation of families?  This article in the Mail&Guardian Online is probably in the right track, describing the story of a young man who at 15 raped a younger girl, and grew up regretting it, now working for an NGO with many levels of projects for social change around South Africa. 

Why this article and not a different approach?  Dumisani Rebombo's story is about him taking responsibility for what he did and allowing himself to feel badly about it, not about social forces that may have cruelly set him up to make the choice to rape.  

Rape is a totally preventable, human-on-human power violation that may happen in the context of a great lake of violence, entitlement, and social rage, but ultimately is composed, like a lake, of individual acts, which like drops of water, can be remixed and redirected.  

Rape does need to be prosecuted - it is a crime.  Rapists do need to be punished.  Women need to tell.  But rape only stops when individual boys and men are allowed to be manly without being vicious, and when they are told it's okay by peers and those they admire to help and befriend women instead of hurting them.

Should we care?  I hope you agree that we should.  Where you live, where I live, there may not be anybody advocating raping a child to cure or prevent AIDS, but the macho culture is alive and well, male privilege and entitlement pops up in the strangest places.  What if we all reach out to the boys and young men we know and redirect a warped attitude toward women, offer an alternative to macho of mutual respect and equality.  Anything is possible.  Give it a try where you are.


  1. Thank you, Lyn for consistently posting news that I find interesting.

  2. I think that there are many complex causes for rape in South Africa, and even more complex causes for the lack of interest it receives from high level governmental officials. What is important is that we keep talking about it: about the gendered nature of rape in South Africa, and the gendering of HIV.