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IRIN Focus on the scourge of violence against women

This Thursday, women across the globe will begin 16 days of activism in opposition to rape and sexual violence. During these 16 days, governments and societies around the world will be asked to recognise the true crisis that women face on a daily basis in their quest to live free of violence and intimidation.

According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “Rape, domestic assault, forced prostitution, sexual abuse of children, harassment in the workplace: these are the many forms of violence against women that cut across cultural, religious, and regional boundaries. We must uphold the right of all women to lives free of violence, lives of equality, development and peace.”

The 1993 UN ‘Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women’ defined the issue as “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The declaration added that gender-based violence is “violence that is directed against a women because she is a woman or which affects women disproportionately.”

In her commentary in UNICEF’s 1997 Progress of Nations Report, Charlotte Bunch said that violence against women and girls was one of the most pervasive forms of human rights violations in the world. Despite this, she said it was probably one of the least recognised human rights abuses.

Abuse in figures

According to the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), at least 20 percent of the world’s women have been physically or sexually assaulted by a man at some point in their lives. In 1993 the World Bank estimated that violence against women was a more serious cause of death and ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined. The most common form of violence against women is domestic violence, and globally it is estimated that 80 percent of women that are assaulted know their attackers.

In South Africa, which is estimated to have the highest incidence of violence against women in the world, the South African Police Service (SAPS) said last year there were 42,229 reported rape cases.

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) estimates that only one in 20 rapes is reported to the police and speculates that a rape occurs every 83 seconds in South Africa. In 1997 SAPS said that only one in 36 rapes were reported, which then led to the commonly accepted view that 1.8 million women were raped in South Africa each year. According to estimates from the South African Law Commission, last year 1.6 million women, children and men were raped in South Africa.

In recent weeks the discrepancy in the figures became a national issue when President Thabo Mbeki in a speech to the National Council of Provinces, criticised “purely speculative” statistics and said that inflated rape figures were “hindering the fight against sexual violence.” But, Mbeki added: “One rape is too many. Through our concerted action we must make this clear to all who carry out this terrible crime.”

In reaction to the debate, Marion Stevens, Policy Analyst with the Women’s Health Project said in a recent article: “Whatever the data, rape is endemic, whether every 26 seconds or every hour.”


In a separate article ‘An overview of rape in South Africa’, Mary Robertson from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) noted that many reasons have been advanced for the prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa. One of the common sociological explanations is the idea that South Africa is traditionally a highly male dominated and patriarchal society, where women have limited power and authority and are frequently exploited.

“Research suggests that rape is more prevalent in such societies,” she said. According to Robertson, societal attitudes may have contributed to rape, and that rape is more common in societies that accept and believe in “rape myths”.
These myths include beliefs that men rape because they cannot control their sexual lust, women encourage rape, rapists are strangers and women enjoy being raped.

“These myths serve to label women as in some way responsible for the rape and to view men’s actions as excusable, thereby giving silent consent to their actions. These rape myths also reduce the likelihood of women reporting their rape, for fear of being blamed and stigmatised,” Robertson said.

She argues that in South Africa a “culture of violence” has been a dominant feature in society for many years, which has its roots in apartheid and political struggle. “The ongoing struggle and transition has left many men with a sense of powerlessness and perceived emasculation,” Robertson suggested. “This may represent a displacement of aggression in which men of all races feel able to reassert their power and dominance against the perceived ‘weaker’ individuals in society. In this context, rape is an assertion of power and aggression in an attempt to reassert the rapists masculinity.”

Another reason that has often being cited is the inadequacy of the South African criminal justice system when dealing with rapists. Traditionally rape has had one of the lowest conviction rates of all serious crimes in South Africa. Sentences meted out have tended to be lenient, giving society the impression that rape is not a serious crime.

“The response in the past of many professionals and state institutions has been to either blame the victims and give her the message that it was her fault, that she must have done something or to simply ignore what the victim has to say,” a gender activist told IRIN.

Another sociological idea that has been put forward is that the disrespect of women has become such a part of pop culture that young men growing up are exposed to ideas that see women as sex objects and as possessions.

“There simply are very few visible signs in today’s culture that says to young men that they have to respect the women in their lives. All around them the message is that they have to prove their manliness, and to do this they have to step all over women,” a social worker who councils rape victims told IRIN. “It’s no use when we mothers teach our sons to respect women, when they go out there and hear almost quite the opposite message. A young person’s peer group can often be the most influential grouping in their lives,” she said.

Double victimisation

According to the gender activist the “double victimisation” of rape victims has to end. Often a woman is treated with insensitivity and made to feel that she has done something wrong and that she should be put on trial for “allowing this to happen to her.” She told IRIN that understandably the police are overworked and underpaid, “but that was no excuse for treating a rape victim like she is the criminal. It doesn’t take very much to be sensitive and show some empathy when taking a statement from a rape victim.

“Would you report that you have been raped or that your husband or lover has abused you if you know that people are not going to believe you or that you are going to be treated as if you did something wrong? Government institutions need to send a clear message that they will support women who report that they have been raped, they have to and need to go the extra mile in letting a woman know that it is okay to go to the police, “ she said.

In her article Stevens noted: “Most women would rather not endure the procedure of reporting the crime, having just survived an experience of rape. Women are generally not given a separate room and a sympathetic ear. While the department (Safety and Security) is taking steps to improve police responsiveness, the current situation does limit the extent to which rapes are reported to police stations.”


Rape has both physical and mental effects, with the most deadly physical effect being the fear by victims that they are at risk of contracting HIV. “A big part of the ordeal for women is trying to get hold of drugs that will reduce their risk of contracting the disease. The problem is that these drugs are really expensive, and not all medical aids are willing to pay. How are ordinary South African women meant to afford an estimated R5,000 (about US $833)?” a medical practitioner asked.

“Added to the possibility of HIV is an unwanted pregnancy, other sexually transmitted diseases, injuries to internal organs, and fatal outcomes such as suicide,” she told IRIN. “The soul and the spirit often take much longer to heal, the damage to a woman’s sense of who she is and what she is, being probably the most difficult to overcome. Emotionally a woman is never the same again.”

According to the doctor, rape victims can also suffer from depression, fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating problems, obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.

Rape also affects the “social health” of the community, as women may choose to isolate themselves because of fear or shame, or the community might isolate women because they see the victim as having done something wrong. “A sphere of silence can develop where the family or even the community refuses to confront and acknowledge what has happened,” the gender activist said.

In general, violence against women can also have “inter-generational” consequences. According to the UN’s World Health Organisation, boys who witness their mother’s being beaten by their partners are more likely than other boys to use violence to solve their own problems or grow up believing that it is “okay” to hurt a women. Similarly girls who witness the same kind of violence are more likely to become involved in relationships in which their partners abuse them.

The way forward

One of the most difficult and yet one of the most important changes that needs to take place is in societal attitudes, activists told IRIN. “The issue is changing the perception - so deep seated it is often unconscious - that women are fundamentally of less value than men. It is only when women and girls gain their place as strong and equal members of society that violence against them will be viewed as a shocking aberration rather than an invisible norm,” UNICEF said in its 1997 Progress of Nations Report.

In South Africa, there needs to be a concerted effort to raise the profile of violence against women, analysts said. Every part of society has to become involved, the judiciary, the health system, the education department, non-governmental organisations and individual men and women. “We should be learning why men have problems with expressing intimacy and need to violently express power over women,” Stevens said.

She added: “Our health sector needs to develop better ways of serving women who have been violated that assist them in healing and having recourse to justice by better forensic medicine practice. And the police need to think through how to make it easier for women to feel enabled to report this violation, knowing that it often leads to naught.”

“Education is key in our fight,” said the gender activist. “We need to teach our children that violence committed against anybody regardless of their sex, race or religion is wrong, and we have to teach them that if they do hurt somebody there are consequences. Basically it boils down to teaching our children to respect human life,” she said.

According to the activist there also be some kind of legal literacy programme so that women know what to do if they are raped. “A large part of the trauma is that women simply don’t know what to do we have to tell women exactly what they should and shouldn’t do.”

She added: “The message needs to be made loud and clear that violence against women in any form will not be tolerated. It doesn’t matter what your status in society is, hurting a women is wrong.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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