Each year, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), commemorates this 16-day period under a different theme speaking to the issues which affect women the most. This year, the theme is “Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape!” and calls for communities to take a bold stand against rape. 

This theme couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, particularly in the South African context, where the rate of violence (of all forms) against women is astronomical. The South African legal definition of rape is progressive and broad, recognising the many ways in which rape can occur. It encompasses oral, anal or vaginal penetration of a person (male or female) with a genital organ, with any object and the penetration of a person’s mouth with the genital organs of an animal. The statistics speak to a pervasive rape culture (the sociological concept for a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalised because of societal attitudes about gender and sexuality) where women and children – the most vulnerable – bear the brunt, coupled with the impunity with which too many perpetrators operate. 

Taking into account the above definition, according to the South African Police Service (SAPS), in the 2018/19 period, 41 583 rapes were reported. This is an increase from 40 035 rapes during 2017/18. The 2018/19 numbers translate to an average of 114 rapes being recorded by the police each day. While anyone can be a victim of rape, the statistics indicate that the overwhelming majority of victims who report, are indeed women and girls. It is important to recognise that due the very intimate nature of rape, far too many victims to not report the crime. This distorts the figures, meaning that it is unlikely that we will ever have an accurate representation of the picture of rape in South Africa, and indeed the world. 

The reluctance to report rape is compounded by a number of factors. Rape culture thrives as it is firmly rooted in an intricate system of patriarchal and/or cultural beliefs, power and control, which feed a social environment in which sexual violence has been normalised.  The stigma which society attaches to victims, the impunity with which perpetrators operate and the leeway they are afforded, and the attitudes of law enforcement officers when faced with a victim, all threaten the ability to end this scourge. Further, in the age of digital global connection, the levity with which rape and sexual assault are treated on social media platforms, speaks to a global social problem.

The frequently reported negative, dismissive attitudes of SAPS officials when faced with a rape victim are also red flags indicating how society views and treats victims. According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), during the 2018/19 period, at least 55 rape complaints against police officers were investigated in the six months between April to September 2018. This speaks to the fact that women are not even safe from the people tasked with protecting them. 

Another SAPS related indicator of the attitude of the country towards rape is that in September 2019, it was reported that 76% of police stations in South Africa do not have adult rape kits in stock, and 69% percent of stations do not have child rape kits in stock. These kits are essential to the gathering of evidence needed to secure the arrest and conviction of rapists. The fact that this state of affairs was permitted to exist means that women will continue to be victimised because of poor police and government investment. 

This year, the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old university student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, brought the country to a standstill, not least because she was killed by an employee of a public institution, the South African Post Office (SAPO). The lax vetting system that permitted a man with a conviction for a violent crime and (withdrawn) sexual assault charges to find himself in the employ of SAPO is an indictment of the South African government. Her murder is but one example of the impunity with which government employees abuse women. 

In October 2019, President Ramaphosa announced that, in response to the outcry against violence against women in South Africa, the Interim Steering Committee would lead implementation of an emergency response to GBV. The Emergency Action Plan, which is backed by a R1.1 billion allocation, intends to aid, among others: 

Further, the President has assured South Africans that several programmes have been initiated to improve government’s vetting process and guarantee that what happened to Uyinene Mrwetyana is never repeated.

South Africa has legislated the protection of the rights and bodies of women and children with some of the most progressive and insightful laws in the world. As with other areas in which the government is failing, the issue lies with the implementation of the safeguards articulated in the Constitution and secondary legislation. Lack of support for victims and secondary victimisation in public trials have led to a plethora of rape cases being withdrawn, ensuring that the cycle will not end.

Rape continues to be weaponised and used to exert power and control of women, members of the LGBTQI+ community and children across the globe. From marital rape to corrective rape, rape in war-torn areas and in the most affluent of neighbourhoods, women and children are subjected to a horrendous form of torture and violation of bodily integrity and dignity. Wherever rape goes unpunished and is treated with less that the required gravity, it becomes normalised and a part of the societal fabric against which a blind eye turned. 

The responsibility to change falls on the entire global community. A multisectoral approach, which centres on both victims and perpetrators, is needed to effectively break the cycle. South Africa must start by recognising the inherent dignity and other fundamental human rights of women and children. A human rights culture must be fostered in police stations where officials believe and support victims from the first point of contact to the last. Accountability and sanction of perpetrators must be required and meted out. 

This 16 Days of Activism is, as intended, likely going to be a heavy period for the global community, and it should be. The only way to create responsive mechanisms is to acknowledge the damage and the cracks in the systems that govern and serve, which this campaign seeks to do. 

By Ms Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights
25 November 2019