When you hear the word "rape," what do you think of? If you imagine a stranger jumping out of the bushes on a dark night and attacking someone, you are only partly right because most rapes are not committed by strangers, but more often than not, by men who know their victims, who often have gone out with them previously and are supposedly their friends or family.
The African continent's rape statistics are very disturbing – representing some of the most severe statistics of sexual violence against girls and women - and all we can conclude from perusing them that something needed to be done as soon as yesterday.
Ethiopia is estimated to have one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.
A report by the United Nations found that nearly 60% of Ethiopian women were subjected to sexual violence, making rape a very serious problem in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, figures released by the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency last year show that at least 21 women are raped daily in Zimbabwe, which translates to one woman being sexually abused every 75 minutes. The endemic nature of rape transcends countries, communities, and continents: both South Africa and Sri Lanka share the unpleasant rank as the third-highest countries reporting rape cases in their regions. In South Africa, an appalling 64.9% of rapists had raped more than once, and 11.1% had raped four or more girls or women. These metrics are absolutely appalling, and a strong indicator of a systemic issue that must be changed.
There is a 42 percent increase in rape cases over the past six years. If we include unreported incidences, the figure can actually be much higher. Many analysts, myself included, believe that unreported cases are most likely higher than reported ones due to the social, political, and judicial barriers to attaining justice that disincentivize survivors of sexual assault to report their assaults in a way that can be quantified and measured.
In light of the above, we surely cannot continue on such a trend as if nothing is wrong here. To continue business as usual is to give an implicit endorsement to the status quo. Many survivors of rape are young girls between 11- 15 years, many of whom will be future leaders of Africa. But if they are robbed of their rights, confidence, and bodily autonomy, these girls will be robbed of their future. This will lead to many disadvantages for the livelihood of the countries themselves, which, to take a more emphatic tone, will in turn destroy nations.
Rape and any other form of sexual violence should be denied a place in this contemporary society. We cannot call ourselves progressive when some amongst us are still practising these barbaric acts. Rape leaves wounds that will always remain fresh in the victim's faculties. It certainly can inflict long term psychological, emotional and physical wounds on a victim. Apart from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), some bear ongoing physical trauma to compound their suffering, left infected with physical scars, illnesses, and viruses that will affect their lives for far longer than their assault. Some girls and women find themselves forced to navigate unwanted pregnancies, either placing them at risk of unsafe abortions or giving birth to children they cannot even look at without thinking about the ordeal they went through that lead to that child's conception. Going through that kind of pain every single day is an awful experience that no-one deserves.
Sex should be a personal decision of people of the right age that comes from their unambiguous and enthusiastic consent. Why should such a sacrosanct right be stripped from someone? It should be preserved all the time. Some people pride themselves upon saving their first sexual experience for their honeymoon, while others choose want to do often it after being sure that they have finally found a safe, compassionate sexual partner (or partners) who will respect their rights and dignity. Others determine their own sexual paths as a result of measured consideration, but regardless of one's approach to sex, the most important thing is that their decisions are motivated by their personal convictions. To then be robbed of such a right, which can never be given back, is a violation of a person's human right to navigate the world in a body that is their own property, and nobody else's.
Compassion is paramount to ending the rape epidemic of Africa. How do you expect your daughter, your sister, your mother – or anybody else you care about, for statistically, a woman in your life has been sexually assaulted - to deal with the trauma of being sexually assault? Sex is an emotional and mental experience for many, if not most, so that someone might have been subjected rape comes with it gravest of emotions: shame, regret, self-loathing, and suffering being chief amongst them.
Some are children as young as a few months old, raped to appease the sexual demons of a whole grown up man, or justified as a cultural practice. What nonsense! Surely, that kind of behaviour should not be tolerated and our laws should reflect that loud and clear — the bodies of women and girls are not a safe haven for rapists!
The Chasm Between Justice and Reality
Rape is one of the most underreported crimes. There are many reasons why rape is underreported, and in Africa, most survivors of sexual assault are raped by people they know and respect. Because of this, they are likely to feel ashamed or uncertain about reporting the case, or are perhaps even threatened not to speak by their abuser. With a high increase number of corruption in Africa, some victims may not report rapes because they do not trust the police. This is especially seen in certain cultures that exhibit a distrust of law enforcement. Some police officers may be tipped off by the rapist, and they will neglect the case. This is especially common in rural areas where there are few services to report the case and a small, community-minded culture.
Parents and guardians also play a role for unreported case, since many parents do not fear comfortable sharing what is mistakenly considered by many to be a 'private shame', do not wish to diminish the reputation of the rapist, or are concerned about society view them afterwards – either as being implicit in their child's assault, or for supposedly lying for some selfish reason.
The reasons women stay silent also include shame, stigma against survivors of sexual assault, fear of not being believed, and fear of alienation, or a desire to just suppress the experience and focus on getting to some place beyond the pain. They worry about what their families will think. They worry about 'ruining' the life of a person who is, in many cases, known to the victim. They worry about entering the dark tunnel of the justice system, with no actual promise of justice at the end – even in cut-and-dry cases.
In addition, rape crime is mostly viewed as a private or personal matter. Other reasons why victims may not report rape include fear of reprisal, embarrassment, or the belief that the victim may not be believed. These issues all contribute to the underreporting of rape.
Rape is a profoundly different type of crime as the attacker is using their body as a weapon. Instead of merely stealing some personal item that can be replaced, the attacker takes something from the victim's body and mind which can not be seen or felt by anyone other than the survivor. Even if the ordeal 'only' lasts a few minutes, many survivors report the feeling of assault as lasting for a long time, or as if time has slowed down. The severity of the event makes time itself feel slower – and yet somehow, survivors are expected to present to a courtroom and somehow express what this feels like to people who can't begin to understand. Especially because part and parcel of the experience demands their integrity be presented by the defence to attack.
Once the event is finally over and the survivor realizes that they have survived, they may not want to talk about it with anyone, and especially not law enforcement officers and prosecutors, which signifies an arduous and oftentimes traumatic experience. And though it is nice to imagine that the justice system actually does ensure the right outcomes for survivors 100% of the time, it is hard to blame survivors for often feeling that the cost-benefit of reporting sexual assault is not worth the increased vulnerability to attack – of character, of truth, and of whatever else they have left.
The Blueprint for Ending Rape
Rape is the gravest form of psychological-physical violence, which is why offenders should be given the gravest form of punishment rather than slapped on the wrist. In some countries, relative progress has been made towards ending rape. For example, we have seen the creation of victim-friendly courts that have supported quick processing of child abuse cases to more swiftly bring about justice. But more work is needed.
Stiff penalties for those who have robbed people of their some modicum of their autonomy and security through the act of rape can, and should, send a strong, correct, and unambiguous message to would-be offenders. With rape still so rampant in every corner of the planet, the laws of our countries must never give the impression that we are pro-rape nation – and make no mistake, to make the judicial and criminal system inaccessible and hostile to survivors seeking justice does exactly that. Any government seeking to make these systems fairer and enhance the punishment for this devious crime should be applauded.
Another important issue is the provision of facilities that provide emergency care to victims of rape to avoid unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, as well as mitigate the transmission of diseases and infections. While adult rape clinics have been established, they need to be scaled to more areas within a country's borders, guided by prevalence data. The health and wellbeing of victims should be prioritised, with primary health practitioners being educated on how to administer post-rape care with compassion and efficiency.
We must also give attention to cultural and family practices that tend to sweep rape under the carpet in order to protect the reputation of offenders or family relations. Make no mistake, changing community cultures that protect abusers is a mountain to move, but it must be. And it begins in both the judiciary and the parliament.
We all have a role to play in preventing and dealing with rape as members of society. What we see and hear might help officials to reduce the growing trend of rape, change cultural attitudes, and support girls and women to live their best lives without sexual violence, degradation, and trauma.
Linda Mafirakurewa holds a deep passion for the development and empowerment of girls and women in leadership roles. With the belief that self-improvement must be made if one is to change the world, Linda is an active leader who uplifts young girls across the African continent. She established the African Student Volunteer Network with the goal of creating a platform upon which African students at home and abroad can develop a culture of selflessness, and dedicate resources, skills, expertise, and funding to their home continent.