Health-e (Cape Town)

South Africa: Rape Survivors Still Feel Marginalised

Every 17 seconds a woman is raped in South Africa. According to the South African Police Services' 2006 rape statistics, close to 55 000 women reported being raped that year. But how many more rapes go unreported, and why?

Put yourself in a rape survivor's shoes just for a minute. After experiencing an extremely traumatic ordeal, what would you do? Would you go to the police station, seek medical attention or do nothing and hope to forget about it? Often, these are some of the questions that linger in the mind of a rape survivor. Every 17 seconds a woman is raped in South Africa. It is also estimated that 1 in 9 adult women report being raped.

The Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre's Lisa Vetten, says these statistics are a scary reality. But, Vetten is concerned that there are many rape incidents that go unreported. Research shows that a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system is largely responsible for that.

"A lot of women just don't see the point of reporting to the criminal justice system because they don't see it as effective. Unfortunately, the research tends to support that. Our study here in Gauteng will suggest that only 4% of rapes reported to the police actually result in a conviction. So, for a lot of women, they think: 'What is the point of putting' them 'through two years of hell when nothing may happen?' Linked to that is the well-founded fear that they will be blamed by other people if they report, that the police will blame them, their communities and families will blame them", says Vetten.

Vetten says, in addition, rape survivors are afraid of being shunned by their communities or being blamed for the rape when they report it.

In terms of statistics, Gauteng province has the highest number of reported rape cases. Mpumalanga, on the other hand, has among the lowest number. In some rural parts of the province, rape is something unspoken of. A para legal co-ordinator with Tshwarang Legal Advocacy Centre, Busi Motshana has worked with many such cases before she joined her organisation's office in Johannesburg. Motshana says while a lack of faith in the criminal justice system is an obstacle, there are other deep under-lying causes for this.

"Some of it is culture that contributes because they believe that women have to be submissive to their men rape might happen within that relationship. It might also be family members - uncle etc. It comes back to them that if they report the rape: How will they face these people?", says Motshana.

Meanwhile Motshana's colleague, Lisa Vetten, says this is a deep-rooted phenomenon which may suggest that many people are not aware of what really constitutes rape.

"There is a wide-spread myth in South Africa that rape is something that a stranger does to you in a dark alley or in a veldt", says Vetten.

"When it's your boyfriend who does it to you, you may call it forced sex, but not rape - even though legally it would fit the definition of rape. They may feel so ashamed of what has happened that they feel they cannot tell anybody else", she continues.

Vetten says it could also be that rape survivors are often threatened.

"Another reason is they may fear the consequences of reporting. Maybe they were threatened by the perpetrator that he will harm them by killing their family or children. And, also, maybe they just want to put this experience behind them as quickly as possible because if you report, you have to keep on going to court and people ask you about it, whereas if you don't report you can try pretend it never happened," she says.

While working in Mpumalanga, Motshana says they would receive anything between 30 to 50 cases of rape per month. Within that figure some would often be withdrawn or go unreported. Most of these involved children and were family related. Motshana says this makes it extremely difficult to intervene, especially if the parent is not co-operative, such as in this example.

"The mother was aware of the rape. She gets compensation from the suspect in terms of money. She accepted it and never reported it, until it was referred to us by the principal when the child stopped going to school. When we followed up, we found out that the mother knows everything, and at the same time it's difficult for this child. And since it was a minor, we had to refer it to a social worker to make follow-up".

Motshana says in such cases if they pursue the matter right into the courts, they may even end up losing the case if the guardian does not co-operate. "Sometimes it doesn't go anywhere because the legal guardian is threatening the child at home saying to her, 'if you want to report this case you better find another place to live'. It becomes so complicated, more so for the child".

Rape can have serious repercussions on a survivor; the psychological effects are usually more severe than the physical. According to the South African Medical Research Council the psychological impact can manifest itself in different ways if not attended to. Chief Researcher at the MRC, Mohau Makhosane, says it's important to speak up and get counselling after a rape ordeal. He says all health care facilities must have counsellors to provide psycho-social support to survivors. But, most importantly, a rape survivor should speak to anyone they trust.

"Someone to take care of their mental health needs, someone who can just listen to what they're going through and be there to give them information and support them about what has happened for them to make informed decisions. By so doing, you're giving them back control because it has been taken away from them", says Makhosane.

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