New Internationalist

Rape in the community

It is still important to remember the Soweto uprisings of 33 years ago, for the dreams of equity and justice in a new post-apartheid South Africa remain elusive for the majority.

In a recent feature article in Pambazuka News, Blackwash (a new initiative committed to Black consciousness in post-1994 South Africa) writes an open letter to South Africa's Black youth. I get the feeling that the Black youth being addressed are male. There is no reference to women nor to crimes against women - particularly rape - nor that many rapes are committed by young men. A survey recently published by the South African Medical Research Council found that one in four men have raped a woman and half admitted they had attacked more than one woman. Many of the rapists started in their late teens. One in 20 had raped in the past 12 months. A further one in 10 said they had been raped by other men. Surely addressing the issue of violence against women is an essential aspect of Black consciousness? The failure to mention gender relations in the new South Africa and in particular the low status of women contributes to the continuing violence against women and the belief held by significant numbers of men that corrective rape of lesbians is acceptable. 

In this video diary in the UK Guardian, South African rape survivors speak about their experiences of being raped and the impact it has had on their lives. The diaries reveal that there is both a complete lack of understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation and a belief that by raping lesbians they can be 'cured'. There is also a disturbing underlying hatred of women asserting their right to be who they are and an insistence that they must subordinate themselves to men. In targeting lesbians I believe the men are actually using the women's sexuality as a justification to commit these horrendous crimes and thereby rendering lesbians non-human. 

Whilst the South African Constitution gives protection to LGBTI people, in reality this is limited by the failure to designate 'corrective' rape and crimes against lesbians as hate crimes which would enable the courts to exert greater penalties against perpetrators - including sections of the media that promote homophobia. One striking example of this occurred last year when the South African Sunday Sun published a horrendous editorial 'Call Me Names But Gay Is Not OK'. The article - which includes a despicable cartoon equating same sex relationships with bestiality, calls for a rewriting of the South African Constitution and the criminalization of same-sex relationships.   Acknowledging rape based on sexual orientation and homophobia as hate crimes would send a strong message to young men and the media that neither the state nor the communities in which they live will tolerate these kinds of crimes.   

 But rape in the city is not just happening on a large scale in South Africa. A recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary highlighted the prevalence of gang rape by young boys in London. Rape in the City was produced by award-winning Sierra Leonean journalist Sorious Samura who, despite being 'shot at, spat at and abused' in the making of past documentaries, was still shocked by what he found. During the war in Sierra Leone, Samura had witnessed a gang rape, something he associated with war and not something he expected to find on the streets of London.

Listening to a group of young boys who spoke of a 'line up' where a line of boys stand in wait whilst a girl performs oral sex, was appalling. The boys did not even think there was anything wrong in setting up and coercing girls to have sex with them. For them, the girls were just trash to be abused. Girls spoke of the horrific experience of being gang-raped, one as a punishment for her comments about a friend's boyfriend who was a gang leader. She was repeatedly raped by four or five boys who later called more boys to join in. The attitude of the boys was that it was the girl's fault and nothing to do with them and that if a girl was amongst them then she was asking for it. On being questioned about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) one boy said he would 'batter' any girl that passed on a STD.    

'In the course of my research I have been shocked to hear victims and witnesses to gang rape talk about the incidence of this crime as if it were just a fact of urban life,' says Sorious Samura. 'Girls are passed around groups of boys. Sometimes these girls initially consent because they want to be popular, but the incident then turns nasty. Sometimes a girl unwittingly walks into a trap, innocently visiting someone's house to listen to music or watch a film and then discovering that a group of boys are laying in wait. Occasionally the gang rape is used to punish a girl for talking out of turn.

And yet in the course of my Dispatches investigation I have discovered that gang rape is becoming part of the fabric of life for some young people living in our cities. But it's not gang rape as you might imagine - it's not, in most cases, the seizing of girls off the streets by total strangers. It's happening in homes and at parties between young people who are known to each other, who run in the same crowds. And what's most disturbing to me is that it's often just the result of a group of boys deciding to force sex on an unwitting girl, who doesn't realize that the invitation to someone's house to watch DVDs or to hang out in the local park is a set up for gang rape. It can happen because a group of boys is attracted to a particular girl or just because she has annoyed one of them.'

It is again shocking to learn that gang rape is not even recognized as a separate criminal offence and each rapist is tried as having committed an individual crime. It's also clear from the report that the police are less than enthusiastic about dealing with rape, particularly when it happens in the Black community. Only a few police forces even bothered to respond to Samura's requests for statistics on rapes and rape convictions. The London Metropolitan Police did provide records. They showed that 108 gang rapes [three or more rapists] were reported in London in 2008 - from that alone it's not an exaggeration to state that the actual numbers of gang rapes was probably at least double that. Three quarters of the convicted rapists were young black men. Samura continues:

'On the face of it, these figures may appear small, but they are nevertheless statistically significant when you consider that nearly three quarters of those convicted were black. Why the incidence should be higher amongst young black men I do not know, but the stats speak for themselves, and on the ground youth workers and community leaders confirmed our conclusions. Sheldon Thomas, a Brixton youth worker, acknowledges that there are a disproportionate number of young black boys involved in gang rape, and it's something that's of real concern to him, "because we've got a situation in our community that needs to be addressed. And I don't believe that we are addressing it". But whilst I would agree that we need to address the disproportionate incidence within the Black community, I think it would be wrong to label this as a Black issue. What we need is for people from across all communities and public sectors to engage with this issue, and colour must not get in the way of that.'

The silence around these crimes allows them to continue with impunity. One young girl in the programme reported the rape but had to withdraw the charges after she was threatened, had bottles and objects thrown at her by the rapists. Neither she nor her family were offered protection. How is she supposed to continue living in the same community as these young men? Women have always been at the forefront in the movement against violence against women. Now it is time for men to take a stand against rape. Not just Black men but all men. The responsibility to protect young girls and take an uncompromising stand against misogyny and rape on estates, the streets and in the playground has to come from the local authorities, the police, the schools and the community. The boys who commit these crimes are known to the community and to schools and unless the silence ends they will continue and young girls will continue to be traumatized and live in fear. We in the Black community need to forget this idea of not 'snitching' and reporting to the police. Not only should we be reporting the crimes but we should be monitoring what the police are doing and making sure they take each rape seriously. All these silences collude with the rapists and abusers and it has to stop.

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