Rhodes’ students fall silent

Scores of Rhodes University staff and students started the day by sealing their mouths shut with thick black duct tape.

This unusual start to what was otherwise an ordinary day of lectures and tutorials at the Grahamstown university is in aid of what’s become one of the country’s largest anti sexual violence campaigns.

Organisers said the sixth annual Sexual Violence = Silence protest today attracted more than 1 400 protesters, both women and men.

Participants wear purple T-shirts declaring their solidarity with women who report sexual violence – a rare occurrence in a country where reporting is low.

The black duct tape, which kept protesters from eating, drinking or speaking for more than 12 hours, represented the silence around sexual violence.

A small percentage of the participants stepped out of the university’s main administration building wearing T-shirts declaring themselves rape survivors.

The protest’s media liaison, student Michelle Solomon, said that in previous years, some women wearing “Rape Survivor” shirts had been verbally threatened by male students on campus.

In one incident, she said, a rape survivor wearing the T-shirt was groped by a male student.

Another student, Aimee de la Harpe, said she was told by a male student during a previous silent protest: “Well, if she had it once I’m sure she won’t mind if it happens again.”

In another incident reported to organisers during a previous protest, a woman with her mouth taped shut bumped into a man who told her: “No one would hear you scream,” Solomon said.

The university’s Gender Action Project said harassment was an annual problem.

“People take advantage of the symbolic silence and use the women’s inability to respond against them,” the group’s Lauren O’Brien said.

Solomon said counsellors were on standby at every protest-related event today.

“Emotions run very high during the protest, and we are aware that some students can trigger at any time,” she said.

Organisers also held a pre-protest briefing during the week to let survivors know what they could expect, Solomon said.
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