Rape: a national shame

In November 2009, I came across the news story of a teenaged boy (18) who had raped all three of his siblings , aged between 9 and 13, apparently as “punishment”.

The story was foul, and so represented much that's wrong-headed and broken in our society.  Now that we have the results of a study showing that SA children are most at risk for rape,  it's time to look at this case again - perhaps someone with authority somewhere will find the clues they need to change a trend that has the potential to wreck an entire generation.

What had the family done to deserve such punishment? Well, it is alleged that the teenager's father is currently in prison after his wife reported him to the authorities for raping his daughters. 

By some twisted logic, the teenager feels it is the victims' fault that their father is incarcerated. Besides raping both his sisters and young brother himself, the teenager has admitted to holding down his 13- year-old sister while a friend raped her a week later. Which means that at least one person outside the family knew what was going on here.

Even though I just wanted to look away from what seemed like just another snapshot of hell, I had a sense that this was a very important story – but I wasn't sure why.  Now I think I’m beginning to understand.

Just this year South Africa has found out some very disturbing things about itself:  we discovered that 1 in 4 South African men have raped a woman, and that over 7% of those men have raped more than 10 women.  We also woke up to discover that we are carrying 17% of the world's HIV/Aids burden – taking a global average of HIV/Aids, it means that South Africa's infection rate is 23 times the global average – while admired public figures make unsavoury remarks about girls and breakfasts. 

The majority of South Africans are good people, and we feel very strongly about stopping the madness with good laws and public awareness such as the 16 days against women and child abuse campaign. But we're going about this the wrong way.  Why? 

Because, if rape and sexual assault – even on your children, even on your baby sisters and baby brothers - are not viewed as an actual crime by one quarter of the male population, who is going to enforce those good laws?  And what's to stop the 16-day programme from just sliding off of their backs, perhaps even triggering a backlash against the very people it is meant to protect?  Like the backlash that hit these children when their mother reported their father for raping them?

While there are policemen, parents, brothers and teachers who don't understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, and between sex and violence, the law isn't worth the paper it's written on, and most awareness campaigns just speak to the converted. The laws that are meant to protect our mothers, sisters, wives and siblings from assault will only ever be as strong as the first cop on the scene. 

Tragically, we cannot legislate empathy – there is no law in the world that can make someone understand what it’s like to walk in another person's shoes.  Hence the need for awareness campaigns: some to shock people awake, others that say: "Close your eyes for one moment - now imagine that you had been born a girl."

(Joanne Hart, Health24, March 2011)

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