According to Eleanor Roosevelt universal human rights begin…”in small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
I recently visited such a place – and met such concerned citizens – during my current visit to Cape Town. When you walk through the doors of the Rape Crisis Centre (RCC) you feel like you have come home. Situated on a narrow residential street in Observatory, the RCC operates out of a vibrantly painted house that seems to embody what the organization provides: warmth, support, choice, life. Clients – survivors of rape and their families and friends – are quietly welcomed into the reception area where shelves of books and delicately worn couches – remnants of a former living room – bring comfort. The home’s other rooms have been converted into administrative offices, boardrooms, and spaces for counseling. Since its inception, the RCC in Observatory along with the other two centers in Manenberg and Khayelitsha have been a safe haven for women and men affected by sexual violence.
I sit in one of two counseling rooms with Mansura Africa, a RCC counselor. What strikes me about Mansura, beyond the incredible work she does with survivors of rape, is that she does it on a voluntary basis. Originally from Tanzania and having spent time in Syria and Iran to study Islam, Mansura, a Muslim woman “by choice and not chance,” began volunteering as a rape counselor with the RCC four years ago. The RCC, or the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust as it is formally known, envisions a South Africa where survivors of rape suffer no secondary trauma, and are supported throughout their interaction with the criminal justice system. In addition to counselling, RCC also provides advocacy and training and development. All of these programs promote an end to violence against women, and support women in accessing their constitutional and human right to freedom and security through the reduction of trauma, the encouragement to report rape, and the conviction of rapists. RCC’s services are high quality, comprehensive, and client-centered. However, perhaps the most astonishing aspect is that volunteers provide a majority of these services.
Shiralee McDonald, the Counselling Coordinator with the RCC in Observatory, estimates that at least 80% of services are provided by volunteers, and that at least 90% of these are women rigorously recruited from the community on an as-need basis, just like Mansura. It is not surprising to hear that Anne Mayne, the founder of RCC, volunteered 12 years of her own time, energy, and money to create and grow the organisation after having been gang-raped by 3 men in 1973.
Currently, South Africa has arguably some of the highest rates of violence against women of any country in the world that is “at peace” – the levels are often likened to those experienced during times of war. It is estimated that one in four South African women will be involved in domestic violence, and that one woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner – the highest recorded rate of female homicide, or “femicide,” in the world. Although underreporting makes it difficult to know the exact prevalence of sexual violence, the Medical Research Council estimates that the actual number of rapes is 9 times that of reported figures. Between 2008-2009, the South African Police Service was inundated with 71,500 sexual offence cases. If we apply what we know from the Medical Research Council’s research, then a more approximate number would be 643,500 for that year alone – the equivalent of someone experiencing some form of sexual assault every minute. Specific to women, the closest findings estimate that at least one in three South African women can expect to be raped in her lifetime. A separate study conducted by the Medical Research Council in 2009 found that 1 in 4 South African men have admitted to having “had sex with a woman when she didn’t consent,” and that 46% of these men said they had done so more than once.
Across town in Nyanga, the issue of gender-based violence, and in particular sexual gender-based violence, is one that sits very close to home for Ndumie Funda, the founder of Luleki Sizwe. Ndumie founded Luleki Sizwe in 2008 to provide supportive services for survivors of “corrective rape,” a heinous and ridiculous practice where men rape women to “cure” them of their lesbianism. In the past few months, cases of corrective rape and attacks on openly lesbian women have become more frequent in the news. One recent case, May 2011, was of a 13-year old lesbian who was raped in Pretoria – she was openly lesbian. And in April 2011, a 24-year old woman was stoned to death after an apparent gang rape. In addition in April 2011, Noxolo Nogwaza, a member of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising committee, was allegedly raped by eight men and murdered in Kwa Thema township near Johannesburg. In March 2011 Nokuthula Radebe’s body was found in Soweto, and in June Noxolo Nkosana was stabbed on the way home from work in Crossroads. It is estimated that more than 10 lesbians per week are raped or gang-raped in Cape Town alone.
Everyone seems to agree that we have a phenomenal constitution. The Bill of everyone’s inherent right to dignity; to life; and to security of the person. In theory. The practice that Ndumie deals with on a daily basis tells a different story.
In theory and in law women enjoy full equality and protection. Women make up 30% of the national legislature, and affirmative action legislation includes women as beneficiaries. They are protected by the Domestic Violence Act of 1998, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, and the Sexual Offences Act of 2007. However, in practice these laws are broken with impunity and ignored almost as a matter of course.
For women’s day and women’s month, think about the home that was created for you, and the home you want to create for yourself and others. Yes, there are immense challenges, but it is the decisions we make every day – whether we decide to make a divisive comment or not, to look at a women a certain way or not, to ignore or to stand up, to pardon – that determine the kind of world we live in today. Each of us has a responsibility to promote the human rights to which Eleanor Rooseveld referred. Begin to turn those sentiments into action. For Mansura, Morgan, Ndumie, Jean-Marie – it all began with a desire and then a choice.
Author: Jennifer Lee – an intern working with the FW de Klerk Foundation – in commemoration of Women’s Day 9 August 2011.