A lot of the language around sexual violence in South Africa is rooted in the idea that the fundamental fix is ‘men speaking to – or, more fancifully, checking – their friends’.
This is a strange way of going about trying to deal with a violent criminal offence.
First, it is well known not only that the majority of violent crime in the world is committed by men but that the other two violent crime categories – assault and murder – are mostly committed against other men, whereas rape is mostly committed against women. It is strange that men are called on only to fix rapists and not murderers or people prone to violence.
While it is well known that men commit the most violent crime, what is less clear is what kind of men commit these crimes. It is important to understand this, especially with regard to rape and intimate-partner violence (sometimes termed gender-based violence) because there are economic costs on top of the personal and social costs to these heinous crimes.
A KPMG Human and Social Services report conservatively estimated that gender-based violence costs the South African economy between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP annually.
To give context to this, South Africa spends about 4% of GDP annually on social services, a department whose spending is directly affected by the pervasiveness of violent crime, especially against women.
Clear the backlog
One way in which the country can make a significant dent in our rape problem is to clear the backlog of sexual assault kits sitting at the National Forensic Sciences Laboratory (NFSL). As of November 2020, the NFSL had a backlog of over 125 000 cases, 92% of which are sexual assault kits. This is important, as data from America’s tested sexual assault kits from their own backlog reveals some very telling things about the sort of men who rape.
One fifth of rapists in America are serial rapists, some raping up to 11 women before being put behind bars. What the data from tested kits also revealed is that rapists tend to be criminal generalists. Uyinene Mrwetyana’s rapist, Luyanda Botha, was convicted of robbery in 1999, for example.
The truth is that we simply don’t know how many serial rapists there are in South Africa or what percentage of rapists are serial rapists. What if it turns out that half of all rapists are serial rapists?
Our country could prevent countless victims’ lives from being ruined and save taxpayers a lot of money by simply clearing the backlog of sexual assault kits at the NFSL, cataloguing the data, and creating a database of criminality similar to the Combined DNA Index System used by the Federal Bureau for Investigation in the United States, that would be accessible to police officers and prosecutors and help them put away rapists.
What the data in America also revealed is that the men who rape their partners were mostly also the men who raped strangers. The rapists picked vulnerable victims – children, sex workers, women walking alone at night, the mentally disabled – and grew bolder as they were not caught and not prosecuted.
It is entirely possible, and I’d argue even probable, that Luyanda Botha had raped before but we simply don’t know, because the infrastructure and systems to test sexual assault kits timeously and catalogue the data is sorely lacking or inadequate. This means rapists are essentially allowed to roam free and rape again and again.
This is also why rape is an under-reported crime. On top of callous police officers, negligent police work and woefully inadequate criminal justice systems and infrastructure, rape victims are essentially asked to relive their trauma when they report their rapes with almost no prospect of their rapist ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.
What is clear is that the government needs help, especially from private laboratories, in speeding up the testing of sexual assault kits, as the first 48 hours of a rape case are critical. Our often-shambolic police force needs to be trained properly in how to sensitively handle the reporting of rape cases and to deal with the misogyny that often accompanies negligent police work. Rape victims are often expected to be virtuous or perfect or in the case of men, to have fought back and not have been raped. The personal, ethical, economic, and societal costs are too high for this not to be an issue at the top of the agenda.
Our legislators and our police services must be held accountable so that they don’t just merely pay lip service to this important issue but actually take substantive steps to address it.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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