In the last few days the news has been dominated yet again by cases of abhorrent gendered crimes – one involving the rape of a 7 year old in Dros (a family restaurant), one in which a fake doctor raped a young mother (17) soon after she gave birth and more recently of a 9 year old girl raped in a toilet in Blikkiesdorp. These events reflect the harrowing statistics released by the South African Police Services. In the 2017/2018 period 36 731 cases of sexual offences against women were reported and 23 488 cases of sexual offences against children were reported.
In the wake of these cases there has been justified outrage and anger at the cruelty of these acts. In these cases, there has been a renewed call to intensify punitive forms of justice. Some have even gone as far as arguing that convicted rapists should receive the death penalty.
Given the nature of these acts this knee-jerk, guttural and angry response is not surprising. However, when we are advocating for harsher punitive measures we ignore the structural obstacles embedded in our criminal justice system that deny any form of justice too often.
We ignore the fact that when survivors report crimes to the police they are met with an absence of victim friendly safe rooms, an absence of rape kits – inadequate police resources. We ignore the fact that survivors are often met with officers who shame and traumatise them even further, officers who themselves might be perpetrators of violent, gendered crimes. It is ignored how often prosecutors and judges refuse to view gendered cases as part of a bigger problem in South Africa.
Many survivors are denied justice by these bodies long before they have the chance to appear in court. If survivors do make it to court, they are met with an adversarial legal structure that centres processes and not people; and hardly takes the reality of unequal gendered socio-economic and power-dynamics into account especially as these relate to informed consent.
While calls for harsher punitive measure are attractive and seem justified these calls only serve to centre our criminal justice system as the only effective remedy to combat gender crimes.
The criminal justice system is too limited and rigid to address the underlying driver of the violence – South Africa’s culture of toxic hypermasculinity. This masculinity does not attribute personhood, autonomy and consent to feminine bodies. It sees women and those in proximity to femininity as objects for the male gaze and objects that exist for conquest, with or without consent. This is rape culture. Beyond individual justice, the criminal justice system offers nothing other than deterrence. It in no way can investigate the underlying causes and impact of a society that normalises rape, sexual assault and other gendered crimes.
So what can we do? For one, whether the most recent act of violence was directed at a young child or a young mother, we need to acknowledge that women, and especially women who face other forms of discrimination (racism, poverty and queerphobia), are all targets of violence in this country. Additionally, we need to acknowledge that men are the perpetrators of this violence and are the main guardians of the norms that strip women of their agency, worth and bodily integrity. Lastly, we need to reflect on the fact that we have never collectively and publicly mourned victims or truly seen or heard survivors who were killed or violated before 1994, during the transition and ever since.
Harsher punitive measures alone will not lessen gendered crimes in South Africa. We need to start at the very foundation, the named and unnamed justifications for the war against women’s bodies. We then need a criminal justice system that is not flawed from the outset. We need a criminal justice system that in practice values the lives and experiences of all women. We need a government that is dedicated to gender justice when dealing with those in its own ranks – the Zumas, the Fransmans, the Mananas and the endless stream of men who occupy positions of power and continue to make women not only feel undervalued but also unheard and unsafe.
We need community leaders to protest violent crimes regardless of who the victim is and protect survivors from those who threaten safe spaces. We need to be able to confront men in religious and other institutions of power who prey on little boys and girls. We need to hold women accountable when they defend perpetrators. The historic and flawed view that rape and gendered crimes are a private matter cannot be used as an excuse any longer. Young girls are raped in bathrooms and young mothers are raped in hospitals.
South Africa needs a catharsis, it needs a responsive and a gendered criminal justice system but most importantly it needs a national acknowledgement, dialogue and then accountability. These conversations should include why we devalue the lives of women in the way that we do, it should aim to deconstruct rape culture and how we perpetuate it. Starting with how there is a reluctance to educate girl children, how young girls’ consent is ignored each time they are asked to kiss older male relatives and how communities perpetually infantilize women ceasing only when a man marries her.
It needs to be honest that gender-based violence, domestic violence and sexual assault is the rule not the exception. That women whether they are farm workers or corporate seniors face inappropriate attitudes, touching and violence from their male counterparts. It requires platforms that value all women but also investigates why South African men (from all races and backgrounds) hate South African women and direct such visceral violence towards them. The criminal justice system alone cannot do this.
Khadija Bawa is working as a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha located in Cape Town, South Africa