The brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a South African teenager has shocked the nation. South Africa’s incidence of sexual assault is very high, with no relief in sight. But top officials say this latest assault may be a wake-up call, much like the gang rape of a New Delhi woman in December has been for India.
Even in a nation considered the rape capital of the world, Anene Booysen’s story is shocking.
The 17-year-old was found at a construction site in the Western Cape on Saturday. She had been repeatedly raped. A doctor told a local newspaper that her attackers had sliced her open from the stomach down. The doctor said it appeared they had pulled out her intestines with their hands. She died Wednesday.
A health department official said staffers at the hospital were receiving counseling because her injuries were so horrific.
Booysen managed to identify one of her alleged assailants before her death - her 22-year-old ex-boyfriend. Three more suspects have been arrested.
The outrage has reverberated up to the very top. President Jacob Zuma expressed his outrage and called for stiff punishments for the attackers.
Presidential spokesman, Mac Maharaj, said Booysen’s death could represent a turning point for South Africa, much as the rape and murder of a young New Delhi woman did last year in India.
“Maybe, in a perverse way, this is something that will trigger a reaction where the entire community, with society as a whole, government, police, the courts and the communities working together will act in concert to stamp out this scourge in our society," said Maharaj. "It is a deep-seated problem and it is not something that can be overcome by one singular act. It needs a change of behavior, not only on the part of the rapist, but it needs a change of behavior amongst all of us so we all become parties to removing this scourge.”
Rape, a frequent crime
South African police documented more than 64,000 rapes last year.
A widely cited 2010 study found that more than a quarter of South African men have admitted to raping a girl or woman. One in seven men admitted to gang rape.
Gender rights activist Dumisani Rebombo is one of those men. When he was 15, his friends teased him and told him he wasn’t a man. So, in an attempt to prove his manliness, he participated in a gang rape. The victim never reported the crime and he was never charged. But 20 years later, he found her and apologized to her. She told him her life had never been the same.
Today, he heads the One Man Can
project, which works to educate rural communities about rape. He says he thinks gender inequality is a big factor behind South Africa’s rape epidemic.
“I cannot say, 'these are the reasons why,' but I think the underlying factor is how we socialize boys and girls, differently, and there many examples we can take. From birth emanates the notion that men are, or should be, superior and should be treated with more respect and dignity than women," said Rebombo.
He says he doesn’t accept arguments that seem to exonerate men from responsibility.
“If men, because of patriarchy, could be CEOs of companies and president, and so forth, and be in high positions, I don’t see why men cannot control themselves when they are around women," Rebombo said. "So I don’t take that. I don’t take that men rape because they are poor and they are therefore they were just drinking, because there’s nothing to do. We have poorer countries surrounding South Africa and we don’t have these type of atrocities widely reported."
March against women's violence
Activist Zubeida Shaik is one of the organizers of a planned mass march against women’s violence in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The marches will be held on Valentine’s Day (February 14), but don’t expect hearts and flowers. That approach, she says, is long gone. Instead, she says, her group is making demands, going into communities and forcing them to confront the problem as a group. She says she’s seeing increasingly brutal attacks on women.
“We’re placing demands now," she said. "It’s no longer about being polite about rape. It’s not about saying, you know, ‘we’re going to advocate, and we’re going to lobby, and we’re going to do all of this with government structures and institutions etc.’ That’s gone now. We’ve done that. It hasn’t worked, we’ve got to move on, we’ve got to make it a community problem or find solutions within the community because that’s where the problems are."
An official in the Western Cape told a local news station that young people should not “get into situations at 3 in the morning where they place themselves in danger.”
Shaik says the official’s comment only contributes to the problem.
“It’s because of statements and comments like that that people’s perceptions become so warped about this. Because in a sense, he was blaming this young woman. And the same thing happened in India, where they also said, ‘oh, but why was she out at that time of the night?’ Now, if a woman is not free to move around whenever she wants to, wear whatever she wants to, what kind of society are we living in,” asked Shaik.
That’s a question that South Africa may find itself asking more and more as it confronts the nation's high incidence of sexual assaults.