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stop the violence, stop the bus

On the third day of my South African trip, I met Joyce from the Rape Crisis Centre, who had arrived at the centre as a volunteer and was now coordinating volunteers. She had joined to develop training for women. Coming from a rural area in East Cape where there was no electricity nor water, she knew more than anyone that equality starts at home.

The Rape Crisis Centre was established in 1976 during apartheid by Anne who is a survivor herself. She started the centre in her own house with other friends. The work built momentum while they were very involved in the struggle for human rights and supported by students of the University of Cape Town. The students started reaching out to others beyond UCT itself, going to other towns to set up local groups. Most of the funding to the Centre came from overseas through trade agreements. Since these are coming to an end, there is a big struggle to resource their amazing work.

Cape Town has moved from being divided from racial demographics during the apartheid to class apartheid in 2008, betraying the view that South Africa is the “land of milk and honey”. The lack of transport and the distance exacerbates the inequalities in access to services such as the centre.

The contributing factors of rape in South Africa are increasingly linked to a vicious streak in multiple violent attacks including rape, but also torture and murder. In the last ten years, from femicide happening one in every six days, it now occurs one in every six hours.

Lots of children lose both their parents due to AIDS and so lose the ability to empathise. Men used to be power during apartheid, but now have lost that with the increase in unemployment. We find the “kick the dog” scenario where they return home to beat up their wives. Rape has also become opportunistic - “because I can”.

The statistics across the country are striking. While one in nine survivors report rape to the police, only seven in 100 perpetrators are convicted, due to a mixture of justice backlog, intimidation and 60% of survivors withdrawing their reports. The centre do have an educational impact on judges, lawyers and the police to tackle some of the myths but unfortunately they are under-resourced and this has led to an increase in vigilantism. People ask “is there really justice?”

But many people don't want to engage with the concept of rape. It's not the kind of thing you want to talk about around the table. The cultural attitude is to keep it quiet in the family, especially if the perpetrator is the breadwinner. But it is about how safe people feel, and surely that's something people can relate to. How do we change those mindset?

Nowadays, 90% of the crisis centre is staffed by volunteers, paid an hourly rate that they rely on for their own families. Recruit volunteers is a really demanding process. They screen men and women who go through a 12 week intensive programme, where they learn different dynamics - “you need to know about yourself before being able to know about others”. They then go through a 6 month probation period.

Their key principles are motivation, availability and visibility. The centre deeply encourages and supports its volunteers to use their work as a platform for skills development. Indeed, volunteers often start local groups afterwards.

Many survivors who arrive at the centre discover they were HIV positive before they were raped – a double trauma not only for them but for the counsellors too. This is why the centre enables them to meet psychologists to discuss the impact the work is having on them.

Women are often seen as being exclusively responsibility for their own safety. This is not enough, we need collective as well as individual responsibility. Rape also takes power away from you, so you need to take that power back. This is why the centre's projects start from the community to work out those issues. The different issues in different communities create the need for specific projects. In one township, being able to get to the centre was the biggest issue due to bad transport links. In another, being able to go the centre without others noticing it was a rape crisis centre was more important. So, some of the centres have signage so people are aware of the support provided, others don't so the survivors aren't stigmatised.

They facilitate one-to-one sessions with the survivor and do work with their families separately to protect their confidentiality. However, if the survivor is keen to have a joint session, that can be arranged.

Survivors have recently developed a media awareness project called “Speak Out” as for some they find sharing the experiences with the press can be a healing process. There is also a need in parliament to lobby as even the female MPs aren't outspoken enough on gender rights.

One of their most successful campaigns was “Stop the Bus”. As their resources are particularly limited to build new centres, when the bus comes through, communities can identify it clearly and talk to volunteers.

They get involved at high school level. They find that more and more teenagers don't know how to dream. This is compounded by the pressures of teachers taking advantages of them and sex education not being part of the curriculum in every school. If it was taken more seriously by teachers and parents, it would be taken seriously by the kids – that's the “catch 22”. However, its the schools themselves that ask the centre to come in.

However, they have youth clinics and organise “birds and bees” camps where they encourage young people to come together and learn. This is crucial, especially people can only have a legal abortion at 12 weeks (and 24 if raped). Indeed, we saw a lot of back-street abortion clinics on our trip.

How easy is it to change cultural attitudes in close-knit communities through this kind of outreach work?


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