Sexual violence, human rights and the media

Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.

 

(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Delusions, madness, and statistics

 


I give you the fifth edition of the Development Indicators that were approved by the South African Cabinet in March 2012, published by the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, published on the Presidency’s website.

According to which South Africa’s conviction rate for rape was 71.7% in 2011.

On whose planet? In which universe? What drugs haves these guys been mainlining? Have they being playing a lot of contact sports recently, without helmets? Did someone steal the calculators, again? Can we please stop smoking the aspadistras?

Lilly Artz from the University of Cape Town says that in South Africa, rape has one of the lowest conviction rates of all serious crimes, with research indicating that only about ten per cent of reported rapes receive guilty verdicts (SALC 1999). The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development figures also show that of more than 54 000 cases of rape reported in 1998, fewer than seven per cent were prosecuted.

Of course, they just don’t prosecute unless chances of a conviction are pretty good. But the basis on which the Presidency is planning is that 71.7% of rapes resulted in conviction.  I see.

I have to go and lie down now, in a darkened room.

 

(Photo Credit: On Being / DFID / Flickr)

So it’s Women’s Day in South Africa

So it’s Women’s Day in South Africa, and we went down to hear a friend of mine speak at a local event. It was faintly cheering: we got to sing Malibongwe, which is the one struggle song white people can actually sing. There was clapping, and a bit of praying, which went down well. We then settled in for a desperately dull morning, in which we all bemoaned the general state of women in South Africa, and the wave, torrent, oh all right, tsunami of violence that is unleashed on us every day.

Yawn.

Yes, we agreed, we are dying. In fact, more than we can count, because the statistics are so unhelpful, given the level of underreporting of rape. Yes, we agreed, it’s very bad. We must fight patriarchy. We nodded our heads. Yes, indeed we must.

And speaker after speaker belaboured this, as though we had just woken up, and decided to talk about this for the first time. Lordy, it was dull. Except for one moment, one interesting electrifying moment. A woman academic, and feminist, and part of the national Commission on Gender Equality said, in one of the tightest, most frustrated voices I have ever heard, ‘We should go and stop the traffic. We should go to the nearest national road, and protest, and stop the traffic.”

And the hall of women groaned and rumbled, and it seemed like for a moment, for a flicker of time, that they would rise up as one and march, limping and dancing, out into the streets and burn things, and break things, and generally get seriously out of hand. It seemed to me that this wave of the possible reached her across the stage and she caught herself, aware of her responsibilities, and said, ‘No, not that I am suggesting violence or anything. But we must do something.’

The hall settled back down. We went to lunch. But that thought spoken aloud is still ringing in my ears.

 

(Photo Credit: http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/)

Be a leader in your community this Women’s Day

This week’s news of the rape of a four-month-old baby and a seven-year-old boy in the same household has left the community of Ceres reeling in shock. These rapes form part of a litany of abuse and violence against women and children in South Africa that just doesn’t seem to stop.

Victims, families and communities are reaching out for support in the immediate crisis and for healing over the longer term so that they can stitch their lives back together again. While services are available in some of the bigger cities and towns across the country, in towns like Ceres there is no specialised Rape Crisis organisation. Victim support will be limited to general welfare services and lay people who volunteer at the local police station.

How can this be the case 47 years after 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in order to claim their rights to move freely in their society without harassment? Women activists and organisations have been working ever since to try and create safe spaces for women in our communities. At organisations like Rape Crisis we can truly say that survivors of rape leave our counselling programmes with a sense that they have recovered from their trauma with more confidence in themselves, with a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, feeling more in control, with closer relationships and more willingness to be open to new experiences.

The extent of rape in 2013 is enormous and incidents are becoming increasingly violent in nature. In this context why is there such a dearth of services to victims? Rape Crisis was threatened with closure a year ago and was in part pulled back from the brink by the incredible support and generosity of our community of supporters who gave generously of their time and money and in part by the amazing dedication of our staff who worked alongside volunteers with no pay. Yet we are still not meeting the need in the Western Cape. In part this is because provincial government has so seriously underestimated the problem of rape in their situational analysis and have therefore failed to allocate adequate resources.

Many people feel overwhelmed and helpless. Community members are calling out for NGOs “to be everywhere”. This Women’s Day Rape Crisis will celebrate by launching a rape information portal on MXit so that wherever you are in the country you have the information you need at your fingertips if someone has raped you or someone close to you. In this way Rape Crisis is finding creative an innovative ways to extend our services to women in poor and rural areas.

At the end of the day NGOs are simply groups of concerned people that have come together to find a way to support survivors in their communities and to try and talk about violence against women in order to try and bring the voice of the victim of rape to the leaders of our country so that they will again have to listen to the demands of women and respond in a meaningful way. In order for this to happen, people have to do what they did for Rape Crisis. Step forward. Talk about the problem. Donate time. Donate resources.

In past Women’s Days we looked for leaders to step up and respond with purpose and resolve. This Women’s Day we are calling on ordinary men and women to become the extraordinary leaders that the women of 1956 were in their day and ask them to do what they can, where they are, with what they have.

(This was originally posted at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Blog. Thanks to Kathleen Dey and all the workers at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Do consider joining their 1000Hearts Campaign and donate now.)

(Photo Credit: Rape Crisis)

So we were sitting around

So we were sitting around, chatting about stuff, and the conversation turned to crime, as it does, and my colleague mentioned a rape involving a number of policemen which had apparently taken place recently. She couldn’t recall how many policemen had been involved so I googled for more information, as one does, using “policeman rape za” as my search terms.

Well, I had to read quite a bit to get to the one my colleague meant, as the search threw up several news media links, hours or days old. There was one article on timeslive.co.za by journalist Philani Nombembe, which usefully summarized the most current cases – a 28-year-old constable based at Touwsriver police station was charged with rape 3 days ago. Last week a 41-year-old policeman appeared in the Paarl Magistrate’s Court charged with raping a 14-year-old girl on a number of occasions in April. The warrant officer is said to be a priest.In Gauteng, a 30-year-old constable was arrested in Vereeniging for allegedly kidnapping and raping a 13-year-old girl on July 2.A 46-year-old police captain appeared in the Worcester Magistrate’s Court charged with raping a woman in a police vehicle in June.Another policeman appeared yesterday in the Randburg Regional Court, in Johannesburg, to be charge for a string of crimes, including 14 of rape.In addition to the reports in the timeslive article, a former Melkbos police station commander was found guilty a month ago of raping a woman and sexually assaulting another while both were in custody.

Did I miss something? Was there some kind of order that was misconstrued? Has the police force lost its collective mind? Did some important politician say something about rape being ok? (OK, never mind that one.) Do their communications people not realize that after Marikana the SAPS have what might be termed ‘reputational issues’? Which can only be exacerbated by the apparent silence of the cops on this phenomenon?

The SAPS Twitter feed is silent on the issue for the last three days, and doesn’t mention these cases either in that time. An oversight? In terms of media releases, the Minister did commend the police for catching a rape suspect in KZN two days ago, who is described as someone ‘who has been committing various murder and rape crimes around the Tongaat area.’ I assume the suspect isn’t a cop, as nothing is mentioned about this plague of biblical proportions which has hit our police services. Can someone comment on these startling events? Or is my worst suspicion true – there’s no comment because it isn’t news, just business as usual?

 

(Photo Credit: Gallo Images / Thinkstock /Times)

Casual Rape: Who prosecutes the abusers that endanger women’s health?

In a consultation with her gynecologist a woman reports informally that she needs confirmation that she is free of all sexually transmitted diseases. It wasn’t really rape she pleads with a mix of fear and shame. She should not have been there, but he said she was pretty. It all happened so quickly, in a split second. Then she screamed, and he stopped. He is an administrative supervisor of 30 years; she is an employee of only 6 months. Elusive statistics on casual rape show 90% remain unreported. The data implies the existence of many fellow victims at her work place. This information, along with her negative test result, did little to assuage the permanent violation of body and mind that she carries each day back to the work place. Fear of exposure, retaliation, loss of job and personal safety becomes her new mode of existence. The physician bound by the limits of health privacy and absence of appropriate resources to help becomes an impotent appendage of the system, unable to address the social pariah, a system that traps the victim and the health care professional in a prison of secret public health epidemics of rape.

Here the prison isn’t a figure of speech. The two work in prison, and she is an inmate.

As mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes regular statistical reviews and analyses of incidents and effects of prison “sexual victimization.” In its 2011-2012 report, sexual abuse rates remained fairly constant, with 4% in prisons, down from 4.5% in 2007; and 3.2% in jails, which is the same as 2007. Since incidents of sexual abuse are notoriously under reported and because the high volume of admissions in local jails making these detainees invisible to BJS surveyors, the statistics represent only a small percentage of prisoners’ abuses.

There is a need for a different kind of dialogue that would expose the marginalization of people that allows, and promotes, sexual abuses to go on behind closed doors. The important confidentiality of the physician’s office contrasts with the dearth of instances for sexual abuses to be rendered public without fear and shame. As we recall, pregnant women may be prosecuted and sent to jail for supposedly endangering their fetus, but who prosecutes the abusers that endanger women’s health?

We need to start a change in the paradigm of power that makes so many suffer.

(Photo Credit: ThinkProgress / Just Detention)

Casual rape in prison work places

What is considered rape? Often, the definition of rape depends on who holds the power to define it.  For example, what is happening in places where women are confined, dependent and supervised?

In Resistance Behind Bars, Victoria Law devotes one chapter to sexual abuse in prisons. Women like Gina are forced into having sex with male wardens or supervisors. Gina worked in a correctional coffee shop in Oregon as a prisoner. Everyday she would work with the food coordinator who was a male prison employee. She loved her job and thought that her relationship with the food coordinator was friendly, and then he ordered her to have sex with him, “Scared Gina complied.” Casually, sex was part of her everyday work life. As Victoria Law explains, “She did not know if it was rape. All she knew was that she felt alone, afraid and unsure of herself.” (59)

As at many workplaces, women in prison don’t feel secure reporting abuse. Prisoners fear that reporting to internal affairs will result in retaliation from prison personnel and sometimes from prisoners who trade sex for favors. Retaliation in prison may take different forms, including more harassment, delays for release, visiting rights compromised, and worse.

Rape threatens women prisoners and renders them vulnerable as prisoners and as subordinates. In that context, sex becomes a illusory bargaining chip that ultimately generates feelings of being trapped. The ticket out buys the women prisoner another day or more in solitary confinement. Consent or its absence is not the question when women are already condemned, and damned, by incarceration and structures of dependency.  For many women prisoners, the only issue, the only ethical existential issue, is survival, paying the bills, and managing life in a brutal penal system.

 

(Image Credit: http://www.pmpress.org/content/)

The women of Namibia say, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN”

We mean business, and we really are serious. We are just tired of being disempowered, being talked to like little children.”

In Namibia last week, Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga issued a ban on miniskirts. He warned women that too short and revealing clothes are not African. He acknowledged that in Namibia there’s something called a Constitution, but then went on to explain that “culture” trumps constitutional rights. He then warned that wearing clothes that are too revealing would lead to arrest.

The Namibia Press Agency reports that 40 women were arrested, over the festive season, for wearing “hot-pants.” The women were held in custody overnight and then released to their parents, with lectures on public indecency. As the Police Inspector explained, “I don’t want to prescribe how people should wear, even if it’s new fashion style, it should be within our tradition.”

While women have been threatened with arrest for wearing miniskirts, it has been noted that no men have been threatened with arrest for wearing sagging pants. Apparently `culture’ and `tradition’ only `protect’ women.

Not surprisingly, the women rejected the ban, and even more its political context, vociferously and boisterously. Women’s organizations filed protests. Women, and men, wrote in opposition. Women and men organized public demonstrations. Finally, the Inspector General claimed, predictably, that he had been misquoted. The actual arrests of women in hot pants can’t be brushed away quite so conveniently.

Namibian women understand “culture” and “tradition” and know that assaults on their clothing are never what they seem. Banning the miniskirt, of course, is itself a long and often violent tradition. Edith Head banned the miniskirt from the Academy Awards. (Somewhere Seth MacFarlane is singing, “We saw your knees”, and it’s still not funny.) At various times, the governments of Swaziland, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have outlawed or come close to outlawing miniskirts. In recent years, women wearing miniskirts have been attacked because of their attire in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa.

In each case, the women rose, organized, and attacked, because in each case, the women understood that the attack on their clothes was an attack on their bodies and themselves.

In the recent past, Namibian women have been organizing, working at the unfinished business of creating national and local democracy. Herero and Nama women have been organizing for the rights and realities of indigenous populations as they have organized to increase the presence and power and expand the rights of Herero and Nama women. Namibian women farmers have been organizing and developing sustainable agriculture political economies. And Namibian women, who were forcibly sterilized, without their consent, have been organizing, organizing, organizing, and gaining ground.

When Namibian women heard of the Inspector General’s remarks, they understood the context immediately: sexual violence. Namibian women know about the sexual harassment, violence and threats they often face, for example at taxi ranks, and they know it has nothing to do with their clothing. Namibian women know about rape and other forms of sexual assault, including what gets called “corrective punishment”. They know about the everydayness of date rape. They know about the often-limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, and the severe restrictions concerning abortion, and they know that lack of access and prohibition is part of a structure of violence against women. HIV-positive women know about the reproductive and sexual rights violations they suffer repeatedly, and in particular in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals. Women know they are tired partly because all matters of contraception and family planning are left to them. They take the burden and the blame.

They know all that. They know the miniskirt is a diversion, on one hand, and serious, on the other.

And they said as much at the protest rally in Windhoek:

There is no excuse to rape a woman, no excuse, no matter what she wears.”

The women of Namibia refused to be limited to a discussion of clothing, of mini this and hot that. Instead, they put the issue forward directly and squarely. As one placard said, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN.”

 

(Video Credit: OATV News / YouTube)

On outrage


I cannot write about Anene Booysen. Many others are, and are doing so eloquently. But I do wonder about outrage. The national response to the horrible violence against Anene Booysen has been described as outrage. When does outrage occur?

How many women and girls must suffer violence and abuse to cross the threshold of outrage? How many men must engage in violence and abuse before the horizon of outrage is breached?

I ask this because I don’t recall outrage being expressed when both the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children faced imminent closure last year. Yes, there were individuals and groups who jumped and organized, but there was no great surge of outrage at what would surely follow the simultaneous closure of the two most successful and most important resources in the Western Cape for those seeking help, support, community in the midst of suffering violence.

Remember, Rape Crisis is the oldest center of its kind in South Africa. In a recent two-year period, it served over 5000 rape survivors. And when it served the survivors, it served their loved and loving ones, their friends, their communities, and their neighborhoods. It served the whole of South Africa, one healing empowering person at a time.

Likewise, Saartjie Baartman has been working out of Manenberg to change the world by changing the area. The Centre, open for ten years, is a one-stop service shop: 24-hour shelter, short and medium residential care, childcare, counseling, legal advice, education and mentoring, and more.

Both Rape Crisis and Saartjie Baartman have played lead roles in research, advocacy, and mobilizing around women’s rights generally. They offer a place for women to hear their own voices, to have their voices heard, to have their voices joined and amplified, to have their voices translated into action.

Both Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children are indispensable, and not only for the women and children, and men, who come in looking for help. For the entire country and beyond. Who leapt to organize when the two, in one fell swoop, faced closure? The usual suspects. Not `the nation,’ not the State, nor was Twitter alight with outrage.

Along with protests and uprisings and expressions of outrage, all of which are terrifically important, let there be outrage for the condition of those people and organizations that have worked and are working now to change the world, to transform society, to create a place in which women and children and men can live in peace and joy. Support Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children. It’s never too late. Do it now.

 

(Photo Credit: Local Media Unpacked)

Nicaraguan feminists protest for their bodies, autonomy, lives

The news of the day was that Democratic representatives walked out of a hearing on “religious liberty and birth control.” Republicans had blocked the testimony of a woman who wanted to speak in favor of the Obama administration’s compromise on birth control.  But the Republicans allowed representatives, men, from conservative religious organizations to testify.  House Representative Carolyn Maloney remarked, “What I want to know is, where are the women?”

A picture tweeted by Planned Parenthood illustrates this question completely.

Where are the women?  In Nicaragua, some women are in the streets.

Yesterday, at the International Poetry Festival in Granada, there was a parade, with dancing and singing and cheers.

There was also a protest by Nicaraguan women.  Nicaraguan feminists.

On the parade route, a group of Nicaraguan women, wearing signs that read “Fui violada y ahora estoy embarazada.  ¿Te parece justo?” (“I was raped and now I am pregnant.  Does that seem just?) lay down in the middle of the parade, stopping the flow of the marching.  They passed out flowers in protest of the ban against therapeutic abortion in the country.

Therapeutic abortion—an abortion performed to save the life of a pregnant woman—had been constitutional in Nicaragua up until October 2006.  When Sandinista politician Daniel Ortega re-assumed the presidency, he kept the law intact, a complete reversal from his stance before his re-election.  Women’s groups have been pressuring the State to repeal the ban, but Ortega’s switch came with the support of an important Catholic bishop.  Within a year of the law’s passing, 82 women had died due to lack to life-saving abortion procedures.

The State passes regulations preventing women from accessing health care that would save their lives.  Then the State uses religious institutions to embolden its position.  Sound familiar?

Violence against women more than often flows from patriarchal institutions trying to police their bodies and autonomy.  It happens globally, outside the United States, and inside the country just as easily.

Women are defending their equality all over the world, in the State and in the streets.  That is where they will be until the job is done.

(Photo Credit: Esteban Felix / AP / Guardian)