Many South African men do not respect the constitutionally conferred rights of women citizens. Every year thousands of women are raped in South Africa - one every seven seconds, an average of 1 300 every day.(2) These frightening statistics suggest that rape is a part of a culture of violence in which acts such as rape have become normative in the lives of many men and women. Normative violence against women is based on distorted ideas perpetuated by certain factions who cling to patriarchal beliefs that often resemble misogyny.
Rape is ‘psychological theft’ of a woman’s dignity. Shame silences victims, and the One in Nine Campaign was started to address this issue of silence. The campaign was introduced in February 2006 to show solidarity with rape survivor, Khwezi Johnson, during the Jacob Zuma rape trial, and now supports many other women who speak up against the perpetrators of sexual violence.(3) This paper examines the importance of solidarity in dealing with the culture of violence against women and the dangers of silence about violence. It discusses the silent protest held by Rhodes University students in solidarity with the One in Nine Campaign as an example of the power of supportive acts to help women speak out against perpetrators of sexual violence.
Rhodes University silent protest 2010
On April 23 2010, Rhodes University staged their annual ‘Sexual Violence = Silence’ protest in partnership with the One in Nine Campaign. Rhodes staff members and students showed their support for women who spoke out against sexual violence. Through this campaign, the women and men at Rhodes University were able to demonstrate they have had enough of violence and are ready to take a stand against those who infringe on the rights of women. Rhodes students and staff have engaged in these silent protests for the past four years. Participants do not eat or drink the whole day, then break the fast together during a debriefing session where all those involved come together and talk about their experiences.
More than 800 people supported the march this year. Students and staff members used the opportunity to participate in various roles. Women ‘silenced’ themselves with black tape over their mouths and from 07h45 to 18h00 they did not eat or drink. In order to show the world the reason for their protest, they wore T-shirts with the words “Sexual Violence = Silence” and when asked what they were doing, handed out flyers explaining their protest. Men also acted in support of rape victims. They wore T-shirts proclaiming their solidarity with rape victims as men. They were encouraged to speak out against sexual violence throughout the day. They spoke to other men about rape and discussed their attitudes towards women. Rape victims also spoke out during the protest, and wore T-shirts proclaiming that they are rape survivors.
The protests also included a ‘Die-in’ outside Rhodes University’s clock tower, where protestors lay on the ground and had chalk outlines made of themselves, as if a mass murder had been committed. The protest ended with a march titled ‘Take Back the Night’ where all those who participated in the day’s activities marched through the streets of Grahamstown shouting chants and slogans, in a symbolic effort to reclaim the rights of women to walk safely at night.
Sexual Violence Equals Silence
The aim of the Rhodes protest was to break the silence of victims of sexual violence. But why does silence warrant such protest and why does speaking out require so much support? Feminist theorist, Martha Nussbaum, provides a theoretical framework to answer these questions. Her work reveals how the effects of false gender perceptions can feed into a society as violence. Sexual interaction between men and women is riddled with ambiguous messages and when sex is forced, there are significant differences between men and women’s perceptions. “Most men who forced sex did not recognise how coercive the women thought their behaviour was,”(4) says Nussbaum.
Sometimes, perpetrators think that women want sexual intercourse even though they may have said “no”. Quoting a United States judge, Nussbaum notes that, "...men often indulge in wishful thinking about women’s wishes and (whether hypocritically or sincerely) convince themselves that aggressive behaviour is what the situation calls for."(5)
The causes and effects of harmful perceptions are not limited to the actions of the perpetrator. The perceptions of rape victims and their societies play a key role in the way women respond to rape. In the United States, it is perceived as ‘normal’ that men commit sexually violent acts, writes Nussbaum. It is “something women just have to put up with.”(6) The ‘normalcy’ of sexual violence effectively shifts the blame for rape from the perpetrator to the victim. The victim feels that she may have led the man on. Consequently, rape victims feel ashamed and degradation, and often reject the idea of legal action. They may feel it is unacceptable to be angry or complain about their assault,(7) because they themselves carry some or all of the responsibility for what happened to them. A woman may, for example, have consented to kissing or petting, but not to the act of sex. Her consent to petting may then be framed as her ‘asking’ to be raped by friends, family and authorities.(8)
In effect, silence about rape confirms the ‘normalcy’ of sexual violence. By not speaking out against their perpetrators, women acknowledge that the actions against them are indeed the norm and an acceptable one at that. In order to break these norms of violence, it is critical for everyone to be more aware of the harmful effects, not just of violence against women, but also the associated silence. When women speak out against sexual violence, they not only challenge norms but also empower themselves by re-defining the acceptable. When women speak out, they are no longer passive, fragile victims. They become strong beacons of light, courage and justice.
Breaking the silence
According to Nussbaum, our perceptions about rape victims are distorted in three ways, namely:
1. By false beliefs or lack of information, which lead to assumptions that justify abusive acts. For example, the belief that women who express their sexuality are asking for sex is a seriously misguided attitude underpinned by patriarchal ideas about male control over female sexuality;
2. By a general lack of reflection on societal norms when deciding what may or may not be considered harmful to women;
3. By the lack of options for victims on possible courses of action to take after assault. Many women feel unable to press charges or speak out against rapists because they fear more victimisation by the legal system and its officers, as well as negative social judgement by friends, family and others.(9)
It is clear that the Rhodes protest attempted to address issues such as those identified by Nussbaum. The silent protest raises awareness about sexual assault through the shocking image of women gagged with black tape, which serves as a reminder that many women experience a silence of their own. The T-shirts speak for the muted women in the protest in the same way that the protestors are speaking for the women they show solidarity with. The men who speak out against harmful perceptions of women and violence are also extremely important in the protest: they show that rape is not only a women’s issue, but that sexual violence is very much a male issue, too.
The most important function of this protest, however, is that it encourages and exposes more options for victims of sexual violence. By expressing their status as ‘raped’, the women not only bravely refuse to be ashamed victims, they also bring the reality of rape to everyday life. They show that sadly, any women can be raped and that all women are vulnerable to rape. It is important to address distorted images of raped women because they are easily stereotyped as ‘sluts’ or ‘sexual women’, ideas with a variety of misleading connotations.
When raped women speak out they encourage other women to admit that they had been raped and to let go of the shame they may feel. During the debriefing session that evening, a few victims of rape openly admitted to their assault for the first time. The ordeals of the other victims gave them the courage to admit to their own abuse. Through courage and support, raped women are afforded the option to speak out and take action against rapists.
The ‘Take Back the Night’ march allowed the protestors to engage in a symbolic act of defiance against the norms of society which perpetuate harmful, false beliefs. Women feel vulnerable to dangers in their community, but this fact is twisted into a cause of rape that blames women for being raped. Instead of holding perpetrators accountable for their actions and making sure that streets are safe, women are expected to limit their physical mobility to avoid the animals that roam the streets .The march allowed the protestors to gain closure to the day’s protest by releasing their frustrations and to show their community that some serious changes are necessary.
The next step - Change!
One of the biggest challenges to addressing sexual violence in South Africa is the fear of speaking out. Many cases of assault go unreported. It is important for South African society to realise that all of us can make a difference in fighting these acts. By making ourselves as well as others aware of perceptions that contribute to harm of women, we can challenge unacceptable norms. Even those unaffected by violence can play a part in the eradication of violence by engaging in acts of solidarity and providing a safe space for victims to speak out against their perpetrators without judgement, even if the law fails them. In an interview with the One in Nine Campaign, Khwezi Johnson fittingly quoted Martin Luther King Jr:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things which matter.(10)
- Motlatsi Khosi is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit The June edition of the Gender Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.
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(1) Motlatsi Khosi is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Global rape statistics, http://www.nationmaster.com/.
(3) For more information on the One in Nine Campaign, visit http://www.oneinnine.org.za.
(4) Nussbaum M. C. 1993. In defence of femininity: Commentary on Sandra Bartky’s Femininity and domination. In Hypatia, 8(1): 178-191.
(5) Ibid, p140.
(6) Ibid, p137.
(7) Ibid, p141.
(8) Ibid, p141.
(9) Ibid, p149.