Violence against women is our problem and we must fix it
By Shamin Chibba
It was cold inside Lindiwe’s* zinc shack. The chilly September winds were unrelenting. The 54-year-old single woman had been living in Ndlovini, an informal settlement in Peddie, for more than a decade. The shack was dark inside and it smelt of urine. Beside me was Thabisa Bobo, Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre’s public educator. She asked me to accompany her and write about Lindiwe’s harrowing rape ordeal at the hands of a teenage boy. She wanted me to publish it on Masimanyane’s website.
Lindiwe braced herself before she spoke.
“Two years ago, in 2010, this boy knocked at the door,” she said. “I asked, ‘who are you? I’m not going to open.’ He said, ‘If you don’t open, I’ll kick the door down,’ which he did. I could see he was young. Maybe he was seventeen or eighteen. I tried to escape but it was all in vain. He threw me on the bed and raped me from behind while I still had my panty on. He was singing while raping me. He threatened to kill me with an ‘isabile’, a dagger so I just let him do what he wanted. He raped me until the sun came up. After he was done, he made me wipe myself with a damp cloth. Then he left. I didn’t even know the boy. I was so scared.
“A few months later, in the morning, the boy came and raped me until I was bleeding down there. After he was finished, he said he had to leave for work and that he would return. It was only then he told me his name was Mpumi*. He returned at nine o’clock at night. He was drunk. He knew I was bleeding and hurting but raped me again. He refused to use a condom.
“After he left, I did not see him for more than a year. I was told that he was arrested for raping another woman and was put in jail. But in June 2012, I saw him walk through my door. He said that he knew people believed he was in jail. But they were only rumours. He had been away for work, he said. He raped me from behind. He raped me two more times before I went to report him to the police. A policewoman tended to me. She was a constable and she had a gold tooth.”
Lindiwe pointed to the front of her upper row of teeth.
“The constable took me to a separate room in the police station and said to me that no case could be opened because I did not have proof. She said that I would have to go back home and wait for the boy to rape me again. Once he did, I should return to the police with semen samples as proof of the rape. I won’t forget what she told me. She said I must not fight the boy. I must not scream either. I must lie still and take it. That way he would not enjoy it. I felt helpless. If the police were not willing to help me, who would? I went to a doctor and social worker and even they agreed with the constable.
“I feel helpless. I don’t have anyone to turn to. I can’t even walk properly because it pains too much down there.”
Systematic violation of women’s human rights by the state
Lindiwe’s case is not the first of its kind in South Africa. Countless women in in the country have suffered the same fate. And still, the government chooses to do nothing about it.
This is what gender activists call systematic violation of women’s human rights by state agents. 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 became emotional while listening to Lindiwe’s story. “I started thinking about my child, me, and even my parents, and I asked, ‘What would we do if we were in their situation?’”
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 implied the state’s systematic violation of human rights is deliberate because of the political economy that exists within the country. 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.”
In October 2012, Foster addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York to urge states to respond to the global increase in violence against women. In her speech, Foster said that it had reached epidemic levels in most nations and that states and civil society were doing very little to reduce it. "Violence against women appears to be everywhere and on every agenda but on careful consideration and analysis, it is really nowhere."
She stated that it was time for governments to take responsibility to curb the situation. One solution she offered was that states should repoliticise violence against women.
"States and civil society have taken the politics out of violence against women and treat it only as a social phenomenon, which it clearly is not."
Bobo’s reason for the existence of systematic violation is the government’s inability to be proactive. She said this was confirmed by the UN’s 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”.
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. In the report, 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.”
Foster also implied that we as citizens have to fight the scourge of violence against women ourselves. We cannot rely on governments who are too tentative to deal with the matter. We are the ones who allow violence against women to happen and therefore we have to fix it. I believe the first steps to eradication starts at home and in the schools.
One month after my visit to Lindiwe, I learnt that she had died from multiple wounds inflicted by Mpumi. Taking the policewoman’s advice, Lindiwe returned to her home and waited for the boy. When he entered through her door, he attacked her. This time, it was fatal.
She lied 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.
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 Peddie, in her time of need.
*The name has been changed.
- Shamin Chibba is a freelance journalist and director of Seer Media. He has been content editor for a number of NGOs including Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre.