Issues of Empowerment

Given the patriarchal and sometimes abusive attitudes toward women, it is not surprising to hear that South Africa owns an unfortunate world statistic: it has the highest number of rapes reported to police, with a likelihood that only a fraction are reported.125 Of those that are, 30 percent involve gang rape and 58 percent result in injuries.126 And any woman raped by a man over the age of 25 has a one in four chance of her attacker being HIV-positive.127

What’s more, of the estimated 500,000 rapes committed annually in South Africa, only one in six reported rapes reach court with just 6 percent ending in a conviction.128 Rape cases typically have long delays, rape kits are frequently misplaced, there aren’t enough prosecutors, and those who are assigned these cases are overworked. And due to patriarchal attitudes, the burden of proof typically falls on the victim. Such factors contribute to a high number of women dropping charges.129

In response to some of these issues, the government established six dedicated sexual offense courts throughout the country in 2013. The facilities include, among other things, court preparation rooms and closed- caption television rooms for victims.130 In a survey of just under 2,000 men between the ages of 18 and 49 from all race groups and across the socioeconomic ladder, the South African Medical Research Council found that more than 25 percent of those responding said they had committed rape and 50 percent of those said they had raped more than once. They also admitted to raping their partner and participating in gang rapes. Some raped other men and boys. Most of the men surveyed said they raped before they were 20 years old.

Some traits have been identified as being more prevalent among men who rape. Men who were age 20-24 were more likely to have raped than younger or older men. Men who had raped were also better educated, although they were not likely to have graduated from the university. Men who raped were less likely to have never worked and more likely to have occasional work. There were also racial differences in those who raped: colored men raped more than those of any other racial group.

In addition the men who admitted to having committed rape were more likely to be violent toward women, have multiple sex partners, engage in transactional sex with prostitutes, and drink heavily. The director of the Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, Rachel Jewkes, cites South Africa’s overwhelmingly patriarchal culture again as a factor:

We certainly have a dominant view/idea of masculinity that is really rooted in our overall patriarchal society. That idea is based on the fact that men are superior to women—that men should be leading women. And one way in which men demonstrate the control is through the idea they should be able to get any women they want as a girlfriend or for sex.131

The high prevalence of rape and HIV in South Africa can be attributed to the ideas of manhood, which includes the belief in men’s sexual entitlement and power over women.132 That beliefruns counter to all the gender equality initiatives and women’s empowerment laws and policies, as well as the constitution.

And, in fact, in direct conflict to that view, women who have benefited from the opportunities made available to them post-apartheid act from a sense of empowerment and control over their lives. As Kerrin Myers at Wits University explains:

I think that when democracy came, the group that was most profoundly empowered was women. At the time, I was running a market research business and producing social research reports, and I did a report on women. And one of the things that I picked up was that women were feeling really, really strong and empowered by the fact that there was a constitution, and their rights were guaranteed, and they were going to change the world.133

These women are feeling strong and full of possibility, and increasingly choosing not to marry. According to Elaine Salo:

I think a lot of women have often personally made a choice, in terms of saying, OK, I’m going to stay single because my career trajectory is more important, and I don’t want all the other issues in terms of the diversions that families and dependents bring with them. A lot of women have made those kinds of choices.134

Sometimes, however, although these women want to remain single, they also want to have children. Maria Phalime notes, “I think what women are saying is, ‘I don’t want the hassle of a man, but I still want to have the experience of being a mother.’”135 The number of single women in the country with children is rising, although it is difficult to know what percentage has chosen to be a single parent and what percentage has had no choice.136 If a rural woman is a single parent, it is not usually by choice.137

Women who have benefited from the new laws and policies pose a challenge to traditional concepts of masculinity, and many men have difficulty dealing with a woman who is not obedient and wants to lead her own life.138 As Crain Soudien, acting vice chancellor of UCT, says:

I think that there are huge, unarticulated issues around masculinity, and women are, unfortunately, at the receiving end of those experiences. And the increases in the levels of rape are related to this idea of what it takes to be a man. I think this thing about what it takes to be a man is in such turmoil and such fluidity in the country right now.139

Soudien adds: “There’s such a high level of gender-based violence in this society for both historical and structural reasons. And, when you start opening access, in terms of women, they are seen as proposing a challenge to men.”140

In other words, women are paying a price for their advancement in the form of a backlash from men.141 When opportunities open up, and suddenly one group—which was never perceived as a challenge before— becomes a competitor in the job market and at home, such a backlash occurs. And in South Africa that backlash is “visited upon” women’s bodies.142 In many ways, men are feeling humiliated—which fuels a deep-seated resentment that often manifests itself as a form of sexual violence and abuse of women.143

In response, women are finding new ways of surviving and protecting themselves. Yvonne Shapiro of SAQA says:

If you’re going to survive, you have to behave like a man in order to get forward. You don’t behave like a woman, because people are just going to backlash you. And you will get a lot of abuse for being a woman, especially if you have a position of authority.144

The clash between new and old values concerning gender in South Africa has created a major crisis between men and women.145 Although democracy has empowered both, women have sometimes advanced more rapidly than men. And some people view the competition for jobs and resources as a zero-sum game: one person’s gain is another person’s loss. If women advance in any capacity, men may feel threatened—as if somehow the push for women’s advancement is taking away from their own rights.146 That may be a contributing factor to the widespread abuse that is taking place, which has also found its way into the workplace as sexual harassment. According to Yvonne Shapiro:

The woman now has the position that the man wants. Now, she’s there, so he thinks the best way to bring her down, to discredit her, is to sexually harass her or to make sexual connotations about her and sexual remarks. It’s such a common thing that’s happening.147

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