The media keeps carrying startling stories of rape; court cases are heard and heavy penalties are imposed, but the horror continues.
As we celebrated the United Nations Human Rights Day recently, the reality came out: The fear of sexual violence curtails women's participation in public life. Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza, a professor of law at Makerere University explores what rape is and isn't
In 2010, we engaged in in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with 61 individuals in Buikwe district, to determine community attitudes regarding rape and illustrate the factors that influence people's opinions regarding the offence.
Rape is generally understood as sexual penetration of a woman without their consent. Just as it is within the law, social understanding of rape is based on the notion of consent: in sexual encounters, rape exists where consent is lacking. We thus set out to answer the question: what counts as consent?
Fifty-five percent of the respondents believe that a man is entitled to have sex with a woman on whom he has spent money. Financial favours are perceived as investment and the woman's consent is thereafter assumed. "After all, why would a man who is neither your father nor brother give you money?"
The study revealed that men feel used by women who repeatedly accept financial favours and then eventually refuse to sleep with them. Many women too held the view that to accept numerous favours from a man and then deny him sex was dishonest - "If you have no intentions of sleeping with him, reject his favours".
Although the above view was held by both men and women, data disaggregation by gender shows that slightly more men than women held this view. In terms of age, more respondents (70%) aged above 35 held this view compared to only 30% of the younger group.
Closely related was the question: if a woman goes to a man's home, especially after going out on a date with him, does this entitle the man to have sex with the woman? Fifty-three percent of the respondents viewed this as an indication that the woman was willing to have sex with her date - if the woman resisted the man's advances and he forcefully had sex with her, such would not be rape. This perception was common among men aged above 35 years.
Fewer younger people held such views - only 30% of the younger female and 40% of male respondents held the same view.
The majority of respondents interpret a woman's voluntary presence at a man's house as "asking" for it. In the words of many "a mature woman knows that if ghee is placed near fire, it melts - if you go to a man's house but resist his sexual advances and he forces you into sex, you cannot blame him; what did you expect?" Others asked: "How can you give meat to a dog and then instruct it not to eat it?"
Thus, in the eyes of some individuals, a woman's physical location and/ or relationship to the man in question can function as a stand-in for consent or render her consent unnecessary.
Such views prove that society has constructed an entire mythology which puts the blame on women, myths such as; "in sexual matters, once a man starts, he cannot stop; men have an uncontrollable sex drive."
Others indeed see presence in the man's house as implied consent and state that "women will not verbally communicate consent to sex and if you make sexual advances and she rejects you, consider it feigned resistance; women say no when they mean yes; if in such circumstances you do not 'force' her into action, she would believe that you are impotent, you are not man enough."
But while some women may have been socialised into believing that it is wrong for them to want sex and that they should "play hard-to-get", such stereotyping is no excuse for disregarding an individual woman's no to sex. After all, only 30% of women under the age of 35 subscribed to the view that a woman should hide her need for sex.
The study revealed contradictions regarding beliefs about rape and more especially regarding the definition. Although the community agrees that rape is when a woman is forced into having sex, many are quick to add that in some circumstances sex by force is permissible. The majority believe that men have sexual urges that must be satisfied, especially in cases where rape happens within a relationship.
Thus, when asked whether rape can occur in marriage, a common reaction was: "What would you expect the man to resort to, if not to his wife?" Furthermore, many found it difficult to blame a man in a situation where the woman was "responsive, but refused to have sex thereafter". The study revealed that the justifications for rape by both men and women seem to outweigh whether or not they believe rape was wrong.
There is, however, no doubt that individuals interpret information regarding maleness and femaleness in terms of culturally stereotyped concepts (Larsen & Seidman, 1986). And since within patriarchy, central norms and values are associated with manhood and masculinity, men are the primary focus of attention in most cultural spaces (Feminist Perspectives on Rape, 2009).
Consequently, where the man's interpretation differs from that of the woman, the woman's experience of violation will be rebuffed. It is thus possible to conclude that in some cases, rape is a result of differing interpretation of the same event by the complainant and the accused.
How to prevent rape
As a community, we must stop responding to sexual violence by merely encouraging women to be "careful", to behave "safely", by creating a cultural curfew for women.
Such responses permit women to be blamed when they experience sexual violence and lead to questions such as: why were you there? Why did you accept his money?
Civilised society must instead ask: How can rape be best understood and how can it be combated? Society must ensure that women's experiences of sexual violence are taken seriously.
This necessitates a change in perception and interference with culturally acceptable behaviour associated with the expression of manhood in sexual matters. Consequently certain kinds of encounters previously not recognised as rape must be recognised. An obvious example is to admit that date rape is "real" rape.