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Rape And Facebook Make Tense Headlines In South Africa This Spring

A woman's back sends a message at a protest march in Capetown in 2011.

South Africa is said to be a country where rape is "highly prevalent" – that's the finding of a comprehensive 2011 report compiled by several universities. According to police statistics released in September, there were nearly 54,000 sexual offenses in the year running from mid-2014 to mid-2015.

And this spring, Facebook has sparked two big stories about attitudes toward rape.

On the campus of Rhodes University in April, hundreds of women gathered to urge the university to take action against 11 alleged student rapists, whom they named on Facebook. Some protesters took off their shirts — and even their bras — for what they called #NakedProtest. The police reportedly fired rubber bullets at the crowd. The protest lasted days, the university was shut down and the administration promised to improve its procedures against sexual violence.

In a separate incident, documentary filmmaker and social activist Gillian Schutte published a series of public Facebook messages that were part of an exchange she had last year with Mabel Jansen, a white South African high court judge, in a discussion of how black men treat women. In one message, Jansen described rape as a "pleasurable pass time" [sic] for South African blacks. Jansen has responded by tweeting: "What I stated confidentially to somebody in a position to help has been taken completely out of context and referred to specific court cases."

The judge has been placed on administrative leave.

We asked Relebohile Moletsaneto, a professor at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal and a specialist on the subject of rape and education, to comment on the student activism, the judge's remarks and what changes need to take place in South Africa to bring down the number of rapes.

Why did rape on university campuses become a major issue in South Africa?

Throughout the years, those of us working in the area of gender-based violence have raised concerns, and the universities have either denied it or swept it under the carpet, until this past month when students began to take the matters into their own hands.

It started first at Stellenbosch University, doing the usual protests and awareness-raising. The Rhodes University students took it a step further in that this one group decided to publish this list [of alleged rapists] on their Facebook page. The universities continued to deny the problem, which I think is why the students resorted to outing and shaming the alleged rapists on social media. This is the protest that has had the highest impact, in that the students have gotten the highest level of reaction from the university authorities.

Is it your feeling that the naming and shaming on social media has been a positive thing?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it tends to get a reaction from the authorities, which is a step in right direction. And no, because once you've outed somebody on social media, even if you go back and say, "but I was joking" or "that wasn't totally true," their names are out there. Critics say that to accuse somebody publicly without getting that tested in a court of law, that's not such a good idea. But in a context where women have done everything to raise awareness and still nothing happens, I think outing and shaming is a good move forward.

Tell us what you are doing to get university women to talk about sexual violence.

I've been doing this for more than 20 years now. What we've realized is that for young women in particular, it's very difficult to talk about sexual violence. So we've tended to use arts-based, visual methodologies to facilitate talking about these issues.

I got a grant from the IDRC [International Development Research Center] in Canada to look at sexual violence in and around educational institutions. We implemented a project at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where we got a group of students of rural origins to talk about their safety on campus. We've used methods like drawing. For example, you say, "In the form of a drawing, represent what it's like to be a woman on campus." Or we've used photography, where we might say, "Go around campus taking pictures of unsafe places," and they would write captions about why those places are unsafe.

For example, the women were talking about how rife sexual harassment is, and how men don't hesitate to put their hands on your body when you're passing certain places [on campus]. They made a photo of hands all over a woman, and they captioned that picture: "My body, your toy? No such luck!" They made it into a pamphlet. It generated a lot of discussion about how the women felt that the men saw their bodies as commodities, that they were entitled to women's bodies and so didn't hesitate to touch them.

Now we are rolling the project out in two more universities and rural schools in three provinces, adding digital story telling and cellphilms [videos made on cellphones].

Is that the first step, getting women to start talking about sexual violence, among themselves and then publicly?

Yes, we need more women to talk about the issue, to recognize sexual violence for what it is. Because what we find is that some women will say, "I wasn't sure whether that was rape or whether I did something wrong to make that happen because I agreed for him [to] come to my room."

One interesting development has been how young women are wanting to discuss the issue of consent and how it is that men misunderstand consent or misinterpret their "no" to be consent. In many of the cases that do go to court, the men's defense has been, "Well, it was consensual."

And so young women end up being confused about, "What exactly should I do to unequivocally communicate that I'm not consenting?" And "even if I have agreed to be kissed and touched, can I at some point say, "Well, actually, I don't want to carry on?" So the issue of consent, at least among the groups that I have been talking to, is now beginning to be talked about.

Getting women talking directly to policymakers on campus would be a contribution towards having policies that are informed directly by the victims of sexual violence.

What do you tell women to say to men when they want to stop sexual advances?

Avoid risky situations — like being alone with a man — and consumption of alcohol. Communicate clearly so there is no confusion. But then, that is putting the responsibility on women. Should men be told something? What? Who should tell them? Why should they continue thinking they are entitled to women's bodies?

The rate of conviction for accused rapists is low – in the 6 to 14 percent range, according to studies. Why do you think it's so low?

The criminal justice system does not work. There are poor police investigations and prosecution services and biased judgments by gender-insensitive judges.

One judge has made the news with her reported Facebook messages that rape is part of black culture. Is that a common opinion in South Africa?

Some white people believe that many of the social challenges in South Africa – such as rape – are black people's problems. This leads them to not get involved in national dialogue or interventions aimed at addressing these issues. And some communities believe: "It doesn't happen here." But unfortunately it does.

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