Andreas Späth

The eco footprint of rape

2010-10-20 07:16

Rape contributes to climate change and environmental degradation.

While this may not be a notion that gets much - no, make that any - airtime or column space in the media or even one that many environmentalists are aware of, it is hardly a new concept. Feminists, including Dr Yvette Abrahams of the South African Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), have tried to raise awareness about the connection between gender based violence and the environment for years.

The calculus may be brutal, but it’s really quite straight forward. Population growth is one of the most important pressures on the environment. People consume natural resources like water and food, produce waste and generate greenhouse gases and as the earth’s human population increases, the stress we put on the planet rises. Babies born as a result of rape add to this stress and thus contribute to our growing ecological woes.

“So what!?” I hear all my male readers say. “You’re exaggerating the importance of rape and besides, I’m not a rapist anyway!”

In a country like South Africa, where rape is widespread and perennially under-reported, the importance of rape to women and by inference to the natural environment could hardly be exaggerated. More importantly, however, you’re missing the point. Rape is merely the most evil expression of gender based violence in a society that is based on the oppression of women and systematically undermines their ability to control their reproductive capacity.

South African women are estimated to be engaged in productive, but unpaid labour - from domestic work to child and frail care - for almost three times longer than the country’s men every day. While they are responsible for a considerable proportion of the country’s food production, female landownership remains at an outrageous 1%. The fact that the concept of a “glass ceiling” has become a cliché doesn’t mean that it is no longer firmly in place. In 2005 women earned only 45 cents for every rand earned by men and unemployment rates are substantially higher for women than men.

Gender based violence in South Africa is endemic and commonly domestic. We have the highest rate of femicide in the world and according to the CGE in 2007 “a staggering 30% of girls […] said that their first sexual experience was under force or threat of force”. With insufficient family planning and widespread unprotected sex, pregnancy rates among school girls are among the highest anywhere.

In this patriarchal society, Abrahams explains, “women […] cannot choose to have children because they want to. They have children because they have to, […] providing men with heirs and capitalism with cheap labour.” She estimates that “something like 24-30% of children born are conceived through gender based violence, and that a majority of children born are not planed or responsibly chosen.”

The corollary to this shocking statistic is that environmental activism isn’t just about renewable energy and recycling. We can make substantial contributions to a healthier planet by working for gender equality, which has been shown to lead to reduced rates of reproduction and slowed or even reversed population growth. As Abrahams points out, “when women have more choices, they tend to chose to have fewer but healthier children”.

“You’re still not talking to me,” I can hear my male readers complain again. “I haven’t oppressed any women in all of my life.” Once again, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Living under Apartheid as a white person meant benefiting from the system whether you thought it was atrocious or not. Similarly - and I write this as a privileged white male and a father of two sons – living under patriarchy as a man means benefiting from the system, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Is it really too much to ask that we actively work towards creating a society in which half the population isn’t constantly treated like second-class citizens or worse? As an added bonus, we’ll be engaging in effective green activism while we’re at it, because fighting patriarchy means fighting environmental destruction.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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