Many South Africans have decried the recent, terrible cases of rape. South Africa’s pervasive culture of hyper-masculinity has been blamed for the problem, as has the patriarchal nature of its society, where men remain the central figures around which society is organised in spite of the country’s constitutionally enshrined commitment to gender equality.
But are these explanations adequate? Radical feminists tend to blame the problem on the continued existence of patriarchy, which doesn’t shed much light on the subject, as this explanation fails to situate the problem in its historical context. It also often frames the problem in essentialist terms, as though men are automatically the enemy and all women, irrespective of their social position, have common experiences of oppression and a shared interest in fighting it. Unless a deep, historically situated, understanding of the problem is developed it will be impossible to develop lasting solutions.
What do we know about the problem? According to South Africa’s crime statistics, rape is a growing problem: the only violent contact crime that is not declining in frequency, with the exception of 2011/ 2012 when rape decreased by 1.9 percent. The majority of rapes are conducted by people who are known to the victim, and most attacks take place in or close to the victim’s home. Very few rapes are reported, and if they are, many cases are withdrawn and conviction rates are low. Most victims are young women.
But in spite of this bleak picture, there are other, highly positive tectonic shifts taking place in South Africa’s social landscape which suggest that women are on the up and up. On the whole, girls are doing better than boys at school (not a peculiarly South African phenomenon). The enrolment figures of women at undergraduate level in tertiary institutions have outstripped those of men.
Women are fighting back against attempts to drag them down. Statistics South Africa has found that more women than men are filing for divorce, suggesting that an increasing number of women are unwilling to tough it out in unhappy marriages, which are all too often breeding grounds for violent male behaviour.
In an investigation of rape in the rural areas of South Africa, the Mail and Guardian interviewed unnamed women from Botala Village in the Free State, who said that they would not encourage their daughters or friends to get married. While they noted that it is not all men who abuse, according to one woman, “…[we] do not encourage marriage because we see what other women live like”. These women are clearly not willing to allow their daughters to live the lives that they have lived; they want something more for them.
Certainly, there are signs that the dominant conception of the ‘ideal’ family type – that is, the nuclear family headed by the man - is withering away. Inexorably, the social organisation of sex is changing. More women want to delay marital decisions and having children, and even not have children at all. Same sex couples are challenging the deeply ingrained hetero-normative assumptions about who gets to constitute a family. More people with financial means are choosing to live alone.
What is not well understood is how these shifts in the nature of families are reshaping social identities and impacting on the growing problem of violence against women. In their study of rape levels in major US cities, Kimberly Martin, Lynne Vieraitis and Sarah Britto found that rape levels declined when women’s overall absolute status increased, as they attained the economic freedom to make life choices that suited them best, and secure their own personal safety. Absolute status was measured according to female median income, female educational attainment, labour force participation and occupational prestige.
However, when only one or two indicators of women’s status relative to men improved, without an overall improvement in women’s absolute status, rape levels tended to increase. This is because women develop a status that allows them greater appreciation of life’s possibilities, yet they do have the economic means or social support to realise these ambitions. Men, in turn, react negatively to the growing frustrations of women and a backlash ensues, leading to them being ‘brought down to size’ through sexual violence, including rape.
This backlash against increasingly educated, confident, assertive women has been noted in other countries too. According to Jacquie True, violence against women increases as they begin to occupy non-traditional roles. For instance, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, women’s educational attainment has been positively correlated with increasing acid attacks, used to maim their victims, often for life.
In spite of the fact that girls and women are often outstripping their male counterparts educationally, the global recession has harmed women’s absolute status. Many have lost their jobs, or have been forced to accept reduced benefits. Pregnant women have become soft targets for companies engaged in downsizing efforts.
At the same time that many people (especially women) have been forced out of the workforce and back into the home, social services have been reduced and household debt has increased. Families should be a source of comfort, love and stability, but many have become pressure cookers of stress as they are being expected to compensate for cutbacks to health, education and social welfare services. Women inevitably bear the brunt by having to increase unpaid labour in the family to compensate.
Retrenched men are struggling with the loss of their breadwinner status, which is impacting negatively on masculine self-image. Their new proximity to their spouses makes them the most immediate targets for male frustration, including sexual violence and rape. To this extent there is a direct link between economic policy choices and sexual violence. Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has noted how rape cases increased massively since the 1990’s when neoliberal policies became the global norm, leading her to describe rape as a ‘social externality of economic reforms’.
Given the role of the family in acting as a shock absorber of capitalist crises, including the most recent recession, governments has a vested interest in ensuring that families continue to play this role. Families provide a cheap way of ensuring the next generation of workers is reared, as the household absorbs the cost primarily through women’s unpaid labour; as a result, subsistence wages become cheaper for employers and state subsidies for welfare can be reduced.
On the other hand, women thrive when childcare is socialised, but governments that are keen to save costs will also be keen to continue ensuring that women are kept in their place, namely in the home, notwithstanding any putative commitments to gender equality.
But governments have a problem. Women are getting above themselves. They no longer want to perform the productive and reproductive services the state has dumped on them. Something must be done.
Enter the South African Department of Social Development with its Green Paper on Families, with the stated intention of strengthening the family, and buoyed by the religious right and other social conservatives all baying for a return to ‘family values’. In an attempt to regulate on-going access to women’s sexual and reproductive capacity, and leading by example, President Jacob Zuma has told women that it is unnatural for them not to want to get married and have children.
While on the surface of things, the Green Paper has progressive elements, at a deeper level it is a profoundly conservative document. Focussing as it does on strengthening the hetero-normative nuclear family, and the pivotal role of marriage as an institution, the document pays lip service to the notion of family diversity.
The painful fact that needs to be acknowledged is that while on the surface of things, the government is committed to gender equality, in important ways it benefits from gender inequality. This leads to the half-hearted attempts to address the problem. The state receives mixed messages from its political masters, whose policies pull in opposing directions at critical moments.
As a result, South Africa has progressive laws on gender-based violence and a number of well conceptualised public institutions guided by high-minded policies promoting gender equality, but without the resources or clout necessary to do their jobs. The criminal justice system as its currently structured clearly does not serve raped women.
More members of the institution tasked with protecting women from violent attacks, and acting against their perpetrators, namely the police, are too busy shooting protestors or stringing people up to the back of police vans and dragging them to their deaths. This is a global trend in recessionary periods; police resources are diverted from their ‘protect and serve’ functions towards repression of the increasingly restive populace.
In combating violence against women, it is important that men are not portrayed as the enemy. Many men actively resist repressive gender roles, as they too are repressed by hidebound gender roles, albeit not in the same ways as women. But the struggle against gender violence must not focus on changing male attitudes only. It must focus on the conditions that allow these attitudes to flourish, while denying women the resources to exit abusive relationships. Some men rape, but not in conditions of their own making.
In this regard, there are a number of important civil society initiatives that are raising the profile of gender-based violence, but there is no national social or political movement of significance that organises against women’s continued exploitation, whether this exploitation is at the hands of their partners, their employers or the state (and often all three). Until that lacuna is addressed, unfortunately the scourge of rape is likely to continue, or even intensify.
Picture credit: The Gender ADs Project
- Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.