“State systematically violates women,” say activists

Having women live in constant fear places men in a position of power. This starts at our top leadership, which colludes with the political economy. “[The leaders] do not have an interest in seeing women free of violence and discrimination,” said Foster. “There is no political will to change the situation.

Having women live in constant fear places men in a position of power. This starts at our top leadership, which colludes with the political economy. “[The leaders] do not have an interest in seeing women free of violence and discrimination,” said Foster. “There is no political will to change the situation.

Fifty-four-year-old Lindiwe (not her real name) lives alone in a shack in a rundown part of Peddie in the Eastern Cape. It is between these zinc walls that a man from her community had repeatedly raped her for two years.

She is often left bleeding from her vagina and anus. When she reported the incidents to a policewoman, the officer said there was insufficient evidence to open a case. Instead, the officer insisted Lindiwe should return home and wait for the man to rape her again so that she could collect semen samples as proof. Baffled by the policewoman’s suggestion, Lindiwe sought help from a doctor and a social development worker. When she explained her predicament to them, they told her to do exactly as the policewoman advised.

With no one else to turn to, Lindiwe felt helpless. The state officials she had trusted so much in the past have let her down. This is not a dilemma that only Lindiwe faces. Countless women in South Africa have to deal with this regularly.

This is what gender activists call systematic violation of women’s rights by state agents, which in layman’s terms mean that the government is mistreating the fairer sex.

The case was reported to Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in East London, a nongovernment organisation (NGO) that promotes women’s rights and provides succour for rape survivors like Lindiwe.

Masimanyane’s public educator, Thabisa Bobo, said Lindiwe’s situation was not only a violation but an offence against the country’s Constitution.

According to the Bill of Rights, the state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights of all its citizens; none of which the government is upholding, Bobo believes. “These systematic violations undermine all efforts towards achieving gender equality,” she said.

Bobo and Masimanyane’s executive director, Lesley Ann Foster, visited Peddie in September this year. They intended to document the stories of four women who have been victims of the state’s negligence and use them as a base for advocacy activities. They only managed to see three.

They discovered the fourth woman, an 81-year-old, had died from wounds inflicted by a rapist. She could have been saved had there been more than one ambulance servicing Peddie. The paramedics were transporting patients to Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane, which is 100 kilometres away from Peddie, in her time of need.

Bobo became emotional while listening to their stories. “I started thinking about my child, me, and even my parents, and I asked, ‘What would we do if we were in their situation?’”

Bobo said that by allowing the women to relate their stories, it helped them heal a little bit. “It assured these women that there are people who still care,” she said.

Violation of women a political dilemma

According to the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) crime statistics 68, 332 sexual related offences were reported in 2010. Yet, it is estimated that approximately 500,000 incidents go unreported. Foster said when figures are this high, it is indicative of
a political problem. “When it affects a large section of society it means the state is failing to protect its people.”

She said impunity is a major cause of violence against women. “State actors do not follow due diligence and the letter of the law. Impunity extends from the state to the individual.”
Foster added that the lack of a comprehensive national prevention strategy allows state agents to continue to be negligent.

She said men benefit from this economy, which is directly attached to violence against women. Having women live in constant fear places men in a position of power. This starts at our top leadership, which colludes with the political economy. “[The leaders] do not have an interest in seeing women free of violence and discrimination,” said Foster. “There is no political will to change the situation.”

She said for violence and discrimination to be eradicated, one would have to look at how the relationship between the sexes is constructed. “South Africa is still very much a patriarchal society. Men have to show they are ‘masculine.‘ It is still ingrained in our culture.”

Bobo’s reason for the existence of systematic violation is the government’s inability to be proactive. She said this was confirmed by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) after it reviewed the country’s shadow report last year.

CEDAW said that the state is reactive when it comes to discrimination. It added: “The committee is concerned that such violence appears to be socially normalised, legitimised and accompanied by a culture of silence and impunity”.

Some of the committee’s suggestions to the state are already being undertaken by NGOs throughout the country. These include the raising of public awareness through the media and the implementation of mechanisms of accountability to ensure the provisions contained within legislation to combat violence against women is acted upon.

However, the one suggestion which has not been heeded is the allocation of funds towards the implementation of the various projects and programmes, which includes social support services for victims.

Police not fulfilling their duties

The man who had raped Lindiwe had been on a spree throughout the settlement in recent years. According to Lindiwe, he was arrested in 2010 for another rape he committed. However, a year later, she saw the man walking through her front door and he took advantage of her again.

This is a problem that happens too often, said the director of Cape Town-based Women’s Legal Centre, Jennifer Williams. She added that in such situations the justice system is not at fault and it usually stems from poor communication between the police and the survivor. “It is up to the investigating officer to inform the survivor that a bail hearing is taking place and the rapist will be back on the street.”

During a bail hearing, the court imposes a set of automatic bail conditions, which prohibits rapists from approaching the women they have raped. But in most instances, the survivors are unaware of such proceedings because the investigating officer did not inform them.

The survivors are, therefore, oblivious of the conditions. In South Africa, two acts attempt to protect women from rape, assault and abuse. The Domestic Violence Act is one of them. However, Bobo said it is not directly focused on women. Instead, it is neutral and protects both genders.

The only other Act that better safeguards women is the Sexual Offences Act. But these two pieces of legislature mean nothing when the police are not aware of them and are therefore unable to enforce them.

The officer who refused to open a case for Lindiwe is an example of the police’s ignorance of their responsibilities. “The duty of the police is to open up the case whether there is evidence or not,” said Bobo. “It is up to the doctors to examine the survivor and provide the report that will act as evidence in court.”

Williams confirmed that by law, a police officer is not allowed to turn away a rape case even if there is insufficient evidence. “What more evidence do the police need than a woman standing in front of them saying she has been raped?” she asked.

It is even more concerning when the police are ignorant of the difference between sexual assault and rape. This was revealed in a women’s rights workshop held in East London in August facilitated by Women’s Legal Centre.

The centre’s legal advisor, Linda November, said that in South Africa, sexual assault is related to broader acts of inappropriate sexual behaviour such as groping whereas rape is specifically defined as the penetration of the mouth, anus or sexual organ with genitals, fingers or an object without consent.

Eastern Cape Provincial spokesperson for SAPS, Major Ernest Sigobe, on the other hand, said police have different definitions for sexual assault and rape as compared to NGOs.

Yet, Foster said there is no reason why police should have their own definitions as both terms are clearly distinguished from each other in the Sexual Offences Act.

One of the workshop’s attendees, Nonkosi Mntu, a counsellor at Masimanyane, said that in her experience the police she dealt with were not equipped to handle rape
cases. “Some of the officers cannot get simple terminology correct and still refer to rape survivors as victims.”

November implied that knowing the difference between these two terms is imperative when it comes to helping those who were raped. She said a victim is someone who has not reported an incident and does not want to talk about it. A survivor,however, denotes the woman had the strength to overcome the ordeal. “The difference is mainly psychological,” said November.

Police and civil society should work together despite NGOs’ criticism of police. Sigobe said officers are equipped to handle sexually related offences. He said NGOs focus too often on the police’s failures and ignore their successes. Instead, he urged NGOs to work together with the police in combatting rape and sexual assault.

He said police are competent when dealing with most sexual related offences and referred to Lindiwe’s case as an unfortunate isolated incident, which SAPS will look into.

Sigobe added that SAPS officers are trained to handle sexually related offences and in many instances, specialists are brought in to deal with these cases.

Foster disagrees with Sigobe, saying that police are grossly negligent. Masimanyane are currently investigating the number of sexual related offences in various rural communities whereby police response is said to be poor. After the research is complete, and depending on the number of incidents recorded, the NGO will consider calling in a commission of enquiry into the matter.

Government not the only one to blame

Following the debacle of the filmed gang rape of a mentally disabled teenage girl this year, Foster published a blistering op-ed in the April 25th edition of The Star.

In it she said that though government agents are at fault, they are not the only ones to blame. She argued that society should hold itself responsible for the high numbers of rape.

Through our apathy, we have allowed criminals to have free reign over our women. Further, Foster states: “Today, the horrific forms of discrimination that strip women and girls of their dignity in the daily slaughter of bodily integrity, mental torture, physical pain and humiliation that comes with rape…merely result in sporadic acts of collective outrage from the population. We are mostly desensitised to gender-based violence in our society…This stirs up the emotions, has government agencies scurrying to condemn it, then peters out and is forgotten before the next report. Gender-based violence takes place because all of us let it happen.”

In an address at the Amanitare Sexual Rights Network launch in September, Foster made clear that women should no longer wait for help from those in power and instead should take the initiative in running their own lives.

She said women have to be more engaged in matters that directly affect them. “It is our responsibility to ensure accountability mechanisms are in place that ensure sexual reproductive health and rights are upheld,” she said.

Lindiwe’s decision

Taking the policewoman’s advice, Lindiwe returned to her home and waited for the rapist. When the man entered through the doorway and approached her, she lay still and let him have his way with her.

The officer’s words, “Do not be aggressive or defensive,” echoed through her mind during the ordeal. When the rapist left, her anus and vagina were bleeding.

She decided not to report the latest incident to the police as she thought it would be futile. “We have to ask ourselves as women, ‘what can we do when we are raped in our own home?’” said Lindiwe, tearfully.

This article was published in the December 2012 issue of ‘The Thinker’ magazine.

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