According to crime statistics, one in every three women in South Africa has been raped. Of these, only one in 25 reported her assault to authorities.
This is due partly to a culture of silence in the country, said Busi Sibeko, Duke student and MasterCard Foundation Scholar, who was born and grew up in South Africa.
“My grandmother’s mother used to tell her, ‘If your husband beats you, you stay and you do not tell anybody else, because those are matters of your house,’” Sibeko said.
During the latest talk in the Professors and Practitioners in Conversation series, held Monday at the Sanford School of Public Policy, thought leaders discussed the blight of gender-based violence in South Africa and several initiatives that are underway to help combat it. The series is sponsored by the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and RTI International, a nonprofit research institute based in Research Triangle Park.
Protecting and empowering survivors
RTI’s Women’s Justice and Empowerment Initiative, one of the key initiatives discussed during the panel, was designed to address sexual violence in South Africa and to ensure that criminal cases move swiftly through the justice system.
One of the key components of this initiative was the establishment of Thuthuzela Care Centers (TCCs), which serve as “one-stop shops” for survivors of sexual violence. The centers, launched initially with USAID and UNICEF funding, provide medical care, crisis counseling and legal advice and representation to victims of sexual violence. Thuthuzela means “to comfort” in the Xhosa language.
One of the primary goals of the centers is to shorten the length of time from crime to conviction. The centers’ conviction rates are higher than the national average, with 60 percent of cases they handle ending in guilty verdicts.
Peter Vaz, development specialist with RTI International, was based in South Africa for 15 years and served as chief of party for the $14.4 million Women’s Justice and Empowerment Initiative.
“We were tasked with establishing 23 additional centers, with improving care and access for victims of sexual assault, with providing grants to NGOs to help them deal with the provision of trauma care and counseling services,” he said.
When the four-year project concluded in 2012, 52 centers had been established across the country.
“What’s good about these centers is that they’ve actually become sustainable,” Vaz said. “They were initially funded by donors,… but those positions have been absorbed by the South African government and the centers are run by government departments.”
RTI’s efforts have been followed by USAID’s “Improving Services to Survivors of Sexual Assault South Africa” (ISSSASA) initiative. This five-year project has two main objectives, said Eileen Derby, leader of USAID’s South Africa Democracy, Rights and Governance team.
“One is to increase the quality of services by continuing training,” she said. “The other component is about raising awareness, both about TCC services in order to increase intake and also about gender-based violence in general.”
Jacob Tobia, a senior at Duke, worked for two months in Cape Town as an international programs intern with another program that addresses sexual violence, the USAID-funded Sonke Gender Justice Network.
“Their main goal is to engage men in prevention and to ensure men are incorporated into talking about gender-based violence and its impact on society,” Tobia said.
Hurdles to overcome
Although the initiatives have a demonstrated record of success, there is still much work to be done, said Catherine Admay, native of South Africa and visiting professor of the practice of public policy at DCID since 2004.
For example, organizations are still struggling to address predominant cultural norms in Africa that can conceptualize “abuse” as “discipline” or “punishment,” she said. She cited a government report that stated a third of sexual crimes are committed by people close to the victims. These crimes are often seen as justified, most strikingly by women.
At the same time, there are cultural resources that can be used to support violence prevention, Admay said. For example, women’s groups in South Africa such as POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse) invoke the Zulu phrase: “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
Likewise, even older generations are standing up to sexual violence and refusing to accept abuse as a cultural norm. Tobia gave an example of a 70-year-old grandmother who would keep an iron rod in the house to defend women in the neighborhood who were victims of domestic violence.
In order to continue to change these norms and raise community awareness, Admay said, these initiatives must do a better job of partnering with the people they serve.
“If we’re going to have a program called women’s empowerment, it’s a huge pity not to ask the people we’re empowering what they think about this initiative and what changes they would make,” she said.
Programs also face the problem of finding and training staff, as well as mobilizing and educating youth who can continue the efforts to curb sexual violence.
“One of the privileges of being in a school like Duke is that we have the space to talk about these things,” Sibeko said. “We don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from.”
Issues such as poverty and teenage pregnancy take precedence in the minds of South Africa’s youth, she said.
“Part of this is attacking these other issues hand in hand with this one.”