For the last few weeks students have been protesting at Rhodes University about the treatment of rape victims by the university authorities.
On Sunday, a list of the names of eleven alleged sexual offenders at Rhodes University surfaced, and quickly spread under the hashtag #RUReference. There were widespread protests by rape survivors. Many students are standing with them in solidarity against the prevailing rape culture in South Africa and more specifically at universities across the country.
Here are ten things we learnt from the events of this week. Or, rather, here are ten things many young women know already.
Once again, a common thread that has emerged from many of the rape survivors’ personal accounts: perpetrators were not arbitrary strangers they happened to meet for the first time on a night out but rather familiar acquaintances, colleagues and even individuals with whom they shared the same residence.
University management, the vice-chancellor and even police have gone to great lengths to ensure that the rights to dignity and privacy of the accused have not been violated. In appalling irony, the protesting young women themselves have been arrested in some instances while the accused were let alone. Even more appalling is the fact that many of the accused are not only being protected by those in power but are themselves the very same individuals in positions of power and leadership.
In many instances where rape has been reported to management at Rhodes, the victims have been shamed for doing so by being told that ‘girls need to learn to say no more firmly’, being dismissed entirely or asked to consider the implications of their opening a case on the futures of their perpetrators.
There has been much criticism directed at the young women who have opted to protest topless. This is wrong as it again highlights how society polices the way women choose to make use of their own bodies and fails to condemn the men who forcibly sexualise and violate bodies which are not their own. Women have, however, fought back on social media, posting pictures of them using their bodies as canvases to convey their viewpoints to the rest of the public.
The era where women suffered in silence, afraid of public scrutiny and judgement, afraid of being accused of having ‘asked for it’ is coming to an end. Yes, women are still afraid in many ways but not enough to remain silent. From social media to physically protesting and running the risk of being arrested, running the risk of being further humiliated, women are breaking the silence and speaking out against the injustices to which they have been subjected.
In South Africa, we are all aware of this powerful Xhosa phrase – you strike a woman, you strike a rock. How we treat our women and how we protect them especially when it comes to domestic violence and rape is a reflection of us as a society and in the wake of the #RUReferencelist, never have we been more painfully aware of how much better we need to do as a nation.
Rape violates the human rights of an individual; it infringes on their right to dignity, their right to safety and their right to privacy. The fact that the victim doesn’t necessarily have a bullet in their chest or a knife wound to the back, does not make rape any less of a crime. We are all too familiar with the psychological ramifications of sexual violence, that these may very well lead to the loss of life even if not in the physical sense.
There is only one sexual harassment officer for students at Rhodes to whom students can report crimes committed against them. This depicts how lightly the issue of rape is currently considered at the university and management needs to be challenged on this. There should be an entire department dedicated to ensuring that matters of this nature are dealt with using the appropriate channels, channels that do not further victimise individuals.
Many of our men have positioned themselves on the side-lines and have chosen not to participate in these protests. This is largely due to rape being seen as an issue that only affects women. Rape is a societal issue and both men and women need to stand in solidarity to fight against it. Rape should not be a culture to even begin with.
‘No’ is not code for ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘I’m teasing.’ We need to create a society that fundamentally and wholeheartedly understands, believes and teaches that when a woman says ‘no’, it should not be the beginning of a negotiation to convince her otherwise but that she means exactly that, ‘no’.