Dealing with sexual assault in South Africa

By Kathryn Cleary for The Oppidan Press

April is internationally recognised as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). During April, organisations from both the public and private sectors come together in support of sexual assault awareness.

SAAM originated from “Take Back the Night”, a public protest against gender violence that began in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. The protest spread to the United States in 1978 and continues to generate international attention. As a result of“Take Back the Night’s” global success, the first official SAAM campaign was launched in 2001.

However, South African president Jacob Zuma has failed to officially declare South Africa’s participation in this international event. With the month of April coming to an end, Zuma’s silence on the issue calls for a greater look at what South Africa and Rhodes University are doing to make a positive impact.

Although the government has not officially recognised SAAM, other organisations in South Africa are involved in raising awareness about sexual assault and the need to participate in SAAM events. One such organisation is the Johannesburg-based Transform Education about Rape and Sexual Abuse (TEARS) Foundation which has been actively working to become the country’s leading non-profit organisation in survivor advocacy and research.

Since its inception in 2012, TEARS has directed a nationwide petition to President Zuma, calling for his immediate recognition of SAAM. However, the petition has been unable to gain enough signatures to allow it to progress further.

More locally, Rhodes University has many on-campus resources that address the issues associated with sexual assault and rape. The Gender Action Project (GAP), for example, is a Rhodes student society responsible for hosting the university’s annual Silent Protest. The society’s chairperson, Gorata Chengeta, explained that the Silent Protest is organised against the high rates of sexual violence in South Africa. “The protest aims to create a safe space where survivors can speak about their experiences of sexual assault,” she said.

The prevalence of rape in South Africa is extremely high, although it is difficult to provide precise numbers as not all incidents are reported, according to Rape Crisis South Africa. Commenting on the 2012 South African Police Service crime statistics, the organisation stated that if all rapes were reported to the police figures could be as high as 84 000 cases in the Western Cape alone, and just over 500 000 cases nationwide. Rape Crisis added that these numbers translate to27 cases of rape daily.

Despite not recognising SAAM, there have been other changes to the South African legislation regarding sexual assault and rape. The 2007 Sexual Offenses and Related Matters Amendment Act created a strong legal foundation for victims. The Act worked to redefine consensual versus non-consensual sexual acts in a gender neutral way that included all forms of penetration. The Act also allowed for certain free services to victims, including post-exposure prophylaxis for the prevention of HIV. However, although the Act serves as a large steppingstone in the correct direction, grey areas still remain.

These shortcomings lie within the South African legal system itself. It is still difficult to access information regarding victim’s rights and, with government organisations struggling to collaborate appropriately, overall services to rape victims are lacking. Often the most common complaint by victims who have pursued legal proceedings against their attackers is their dearth of knowledge regarding the progress of their case. According to Chengeta, these issues can only be resolved by increasing awareness about the law and ensuring that survivors are treated sensitively to prevent them being re-traumatised by legal proceedings.

Although it does not look like SAAM will be recognised anytime soon due to legal issues that need sorting out, organisations like Rape Crisis and TEARS do show a progressive future for South Africa in terms of addressing rape and sexual assault. Initiatives like the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children as well as the Silent Protest further strengthen South Africa’s hope for positive change in this regard.

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