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Activists: Rape in Africa Driven by Inequality, Weak Prosecution

  • Anita Powell

FILE - Millicent Gaika, recovering from a ‘corrective’ rape attack in a Cape Town, South Africa.

FILE - Millicent Gaika, recovering from a ‘corrective’ rape attack in a Cape Town, South Africa.

Rape is considered an epidemic in Africa - even in countries with advanced legal systems like South Africa. A look at the statistics, some of the cultural roots, and the legal and implementation challenges better bring into focus the challenges the continent faces in fighting rape.

South African police say 64,000 rapes were reported in the country last year, in a nation that is often called "the rape capital of the world."

Activists say the problem with this figure, however, is that it likely is wrong. And not just slightly wrong - maybe catastrophically so.

In early November, a top South African think tank questioned the police department's math - saying they used old, lower population figures in calculating its annual crime report, thus skewing the result to make it appear that crime figures have improved more than they have.

Hidden violence

More worryingly, a recent study by the Medical Research Council concluded that only one in 25 women reports rape in the most populous province, Gauteng.

That, said gender rights activist Shireen Motara, is the first big problem. She said women in South Africa often don't report rape because of the reaction they get, even though the nation's laws are among the most progressive in the world. Motara is executive director of the Johannesburg-based Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Center, which helps women who are victims of violence. She said South Africa's violent culture and rampant misogyny often counteract its progressive laws.

"We put the burden on women to say, you have to dress appropriately, you have to act appropriately so that, you know, you don't get raped," said Motara. "And if you do get raped, the first question that gets asked is, 'what did you say?' - or 'were you drunk?' - or 'how were you dressed?' So for me, it links back to that broader conversation that we're having about gender inequality in our society in general."

The nation was recently riveted by a particularly brutal rape and murder of a Western Cape teenager. On November 1, a South African court sentenced her confessed rapist to two life sentences, the harshest possible penalty.

Bianca Valentine, an attorney for Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Center, said this recent case is a sadly rare instance of justice being done. “I think that overall, unless you have extensive media coverage or you have victims who are being assisted by a well-structured and well-financed organization who is able to push the legal system, victims of sexual violence do not receive adequate and effective justice through the criminal justice system,” she said.

Stigma attached to commonplace brutality

That's especially clear elsewhere on the continent. Volatile eastern Congo is a veritable minefield of sexual violence. Girls, women, babies, the elderly are frequently run over by marauding combatants - both rebels and government forces - who have been accused of gang-raping, pillaging and murdering civilians. Yet few rape cases ever make it to a courtroom. Victims say the stigma of being raped prevents them from reporting the crime.

Conflict-plagued countries are not the only ones affected. In Kenya, men recently arrested for brutally raping and disabling a teenage girl were ordered to cut grass for their crime, and then released.

Motara said the key is to change the stubborn and outdated perceptions that affect not just South Africa, but the entire continent. And, she said, the trauma of rape is holding back the entire continent from the success it deserves.

"We continue to live on a continent where women are second-class citizens. Where what women do in a society is not valued, where violence against women is seen as par for the course, it's almost seen as normal," said Motara. "The bigger part of that problem, I think, for me, is that our leaders are not speaking up against the extent of the violence on the continent. So we have lots of discussion on how we are going to economically transform Africa. But we are not grappling with the fact that, you know, half, or more than half in many cases, of the population don't have access to their rights."

Experts say changing the status of women will take time, and that change may come too late for some people. In the past three minutes, as many as eight South African women or girls were raped.

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