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Comment on an aspect of the Zuma rape trial

Letter to the Cape Argus, printed 13 March 2006

We at the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children would like to voice our support for all the South African organisations and individuals who are standing up for and defending the rights of the complainant in the Zuma rape trial. In particular we support the organisations behind the One in Nine campaign (www.oneinnine.org.za), so called because figures from a 2002 report by the Medical Research Council indicate that one in nine women who have been raped in this country report it to the police. And of these reported cases, only 7% result in convictions.

What happens to the other eight women who don’t report their rape? Why is there still such a culture of silence in South Africa about sexual and domestic violence? If one looks at the comments a woman is quoted as making in a recent report from IRIN (www.irinnews.org), it is understandable that a woman may choose to keep quiet rather than face blatant prejudice and further abuse. We quote from the article: “`If it really happened to her, I feel sorry for her, because she’s ruined somebody else’s life politically,’ said Lindiwe Tshabalala, 46, an office manager from Pimville, Soweto [referring to the Zuma trial complainant]…`She should have screamed if this was really rape,’ she said, adding that in any case, it’s a woman’s responsibility to defend herself. `Even with a gun, you have to come out of that without being raped. Even if he slaps you – you run away, you scream, you do whatever you can to stop him.'”

It is very sad that there are still so many women who have not questioned their deeply internalised belief – the result of years of stereotypical gender teaching – that women are to blame if they are raped or beaten by their intimate partner, because they must surely have provoked the violence by their behaviour or their dress or their “lack of respect” for the perpetrator.

And can circumstances in a rape trial ever be such that they really justify questioning the complainant about her previous sexual history? Does acknowledgement of being sexually active automatically make her a “woman of loose morals” and thus deserving of rape or other abuse? We wonder, if the complainant were a male rape survivor, whether the same assumptions about his previous sexual behaviour would be made.

Let all of us make sure that we do not, either consciously or unconsciously, prevent women from breaking the silence about their abuse because of our own biases.