Do anti-rape campaigns work?

Over sixty thousand sexual offences were reported to the police in the 2013/14 crime statistics period – that is over 160 per day. It’s well known that sexual offences are frequently not reported to the police, and thus the reality is that the number is likely to be much higher. It seems justified to say that sexual violence in South Africa is a pandemic, and the solutions to the problem need to come before the incident happens.

This month, the Marie Claire Naked Issue sales money goes to a campaign called ‘Blow the Whistle’. The campaign aims “to give women and children the platforms they need to feel safe in South Africa” and “encourages men and other citizens to react to the call of need, activating the community to work together against crime.”

The campaign currently has three elements – the sale of whistles that women can use to sound alarm, pledges that South Africans can make on the site to say that they will not perpetrate violence, and a mobile app. The app allows a woman to nominate four guardians who she can notify if she is going on a journey so that they are aware of how long her journey is expected to be, and track that she gets there safely.

It also includes a panic button that she can hold down for three seconds, that notifies them that she is in danger and shares her location. The app must be open to notify them. The proceeds of the sales of the whistles are going to the DNA project and the development of DNA forensic technology.

Talking about preventing rape and sexual violence is complex. Firstly, the conversation is hardly ever about dismantling social norms and conditions that create a context in which violence is frequent, and where women are seen as accepted or expected targets. These types of conversations need to happen in homes, in community and religious gatherings – they need to happen in groups, because social norms and myths about sexual violence are group messages.

Secondly, when talking about preventing rape, messages that target women as the prospective ‘victim’ or ‘target’ are problematic. They are problematic because they assume that rape is avoidable – that women could somehow live their lives in a way that ‘doesn’t get them into trouble’. You see this in messages about how a woman should dress, how she should behave, how much she should drink, who she should hang out with. This type of messaging places the responsibility for avoiding rape on women, instead of on men who are the most frequent perpetrators. The real target of rape prevention messages should be men.

Often these messages also seem to imply that rape or sexual violence occurs when a stranger decides to pounce on an unsuspecting woman. Indeed, this type of sexual assault does occur. But, in South Africa, the evidence shows that rape, sexual violence, and domestic violence are most likely to occur in an intimate relationship, or to be perpetrated by someone a woman knows. It’s not clear how the nomination of Guardians will assist this.

The final issue with these messages are that they assume that there is a correct response to rape (to run, to scream, to fight back, to call for help), and that somehow if a woman exercises this correct response, she can prevent rape from happening. There might not be time to blow a whistle. There might not be time to press a button – in South Africa, there might not even be cellphone signal to get the app to work properly.

Whilst it may be instinctive for some people to react with a scream when faced with a threat, for others the instinctive response is to become still and quiet – to go inwards. Neither of these responses can be deemed better than the other.

So, whilst campaigns like Blow the Whistle and the Marie Claire Naked Issue are important in drawing attention to violence against women, and in the need for more funding towards projects like the DNA project, and organisations that work to support survivors, it is also important that these campaigns engage with the reality of rape in South Africa, and begin to target their activities and initiatives more appropriately.

Follow Jennifer Thorpe on Twitter. 

FollowWomen24 on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
22% - 705 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
9% - 288 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
50% - 1594 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
1% - 42 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
18% - 569 votes