Kimberly Vrudny

Violence Against Women

In HIV/AIDS, Public Health, South Africa, Structural Drivers of the Pandemic, Violence Against Women on August 11, 2010 at 1:10 am

“It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read.” —Carolyn Dempster, British Broadcasting Corporation

“When someone perpetrates an act of rape, it’s about reclaiming a sense of power.” —Kelly Hatfield, People Opposing Women Abuse

In 1973, Adrienne Rich published a collection of poems called Diving into the Wreck, including one called “Rape.” The poem explores how the survivor of rape is traumatized again by the male-dominated criminal justice system. This is evident from her first point of entry, when a male police officer records the woman’s account of the crime. His voyeuristic titillation by her disclosure implicates him in something of a gang that continues to perpetrate violence against her.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

The full text of the poem is available here.

Rich’s poem is an artistic observation about the banality of violence inflicted against women, so enmeshed is it with culture that it is scarcely recognized as out of order. Today, almost forty years since the poem’s publication, there has been little progress in addressing Rich’s critique, even while voyeuristic curiosity about violence committed against women is increasingly satisfied by online access.

Recognizing that the process of sharing painful memories can foster healing, but wishing to provide a space for storytelling beyond the criminal justice and psychological services sectors, many web pages have been launched to give survivors of rape a format by which to share their stories. While some sites have password protection so that visitors need to create accounts to gain access to the postings, others are accessible by nothing more than the click of a mouse, introducing the ambiguities of online access. Nonetheless, by sharing their stories, women who recount their experiences participate in a healing process by refusing to acquiesce to the culture’s desire that they bear their pain in silence.

Postings to web pages of this kind are numerous in South Africa, which has the highest ratio of reported rape cases per capita (per 100,00 people) in the world. Estimates suggest that a woman is raped every 26-36 seconds in South Africa, where a child is raped every 15 minutes. South Africa also has a high number of incidents of infant rape or “baby rape,” as it is more commonly called. Indeed, 41% of those raped in the country are under the age of 12, according to South African police reports. “A nine-year study by Cape Town’s Red Cross Children’s Hospital, published in the South Africa Medical Journal in December 2002, found that the average age of children raped was three. Research has shown that 40 percent of those raped in South Africa are at risk of becoming HIV-positive if they do not receive PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis].” (See Charlene Smith, “Rape has become a sickening way of life in our land,” Sunday Independent, 26 September 2004.) TIME magazine recently reported that more than a quarter of men in South Africa admitted to having raped. “46% of those said that they had raped more than once” (Lindow, TIME, 20 June 2009). As much as 75% of rape in South Africa is believed to be gang related.

In an effort to understand the underlying causes of the violence in South Africa, where democracy came only sixteen years ago after widespread brutality had been inflicted by the white government of apartheid against 80% of the population that was designated “black” or “coloured” (people of mixed ethnic heritage), scholars have articulated at least six theories that attempt to uncover the root causes of the violence directed against women in contemporary South Africa. These theories go beyond the obvious conclusion that individual men have made violent choices. The truth probably lies in an interweaving of theories that the individual choice to commit sexual assault against women is correlated to a combination of factors, including poverty, circulation of myth, persistence of cultural norms related to the subordination of women, male disempowerment, broken familial structures, and lack of legal deterrents.

1. Endemic Poverty. Most of the incidents of rape reported in South Africa occur in the poorest neighborhoods, including both township and rural types of communities, although according to Megan Lindow reporting for TIME Magazine, surveys have found that many of the men “most likely to rape . . . had attained some level of education and income.”[i] In a policy brief released by the South African Medical Research Council, its authors confirm, “the overwhelming majority of victims are found among the working classes and the poor.”[ii]

Poverty and unemployment are barriers to men and women accessing traditional sources of well-being, status and respect. Inequality in access to wealth and opportunity results in feelings of low self-esteem, which are channeled into anger and frustration, and violence is often used to gain the sought after respect and power, whether through violent robbery, rape, fighting between men, severe punishment of children or violence against partners.[iii]

Of course, there are many places in the world where there is a concentration of poverty without similarly alarming statistics pertaining to sexual assault. All the same, when perpetrators explain their behavior by saying that it was too expensive to pay for the services of a woman, the correlation between poverty and rape merits mention.[iv] When poverty is combined with additional factors described below, the situation foreseeably erupts, such that societies can expect to see increasing numbers of acts of aggression targeted against women when multiples of these factors coalesce.

2. Circulation of myth. As has been widely reported, there is a myth that has been circulated in South Africa, where HIV/AIDS rates are among the highest in the world, that it is possible to cure AIDS by having sex with a virgin. Although research has yielded mixed results in terms of evaluating the degree to which the myth is believed, it seems that the myth has greater tenability in some regions of the country than in others. The continuing circulation of the myth certainly does nothing to improve the number of incidents of rape in South Africa, though Helen Epstein, in The Invisible Cure: Why We are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa, discusses how myths of another kind are playing a role in the spread of the epidemic in Africa. She writes, “In precolonial times, chiefs of the Sotho tribe would sometimes allow other men to have sex with their wives to secure the men’s loyalty. This was considered statesmanlike behavior and is celebrated in traditional myths and poems. Contemporary gang rape may be a violent reprise of this male-bonding tradition.”[v] Thus, mythic understandings of what it means to be male and cultural traditions practiced to secure alliances are implicated in violence against women in South Africa.

3. Persistence of cultural norms related to the subordination of women. Researchers have long recognized that male “domination is often so deeply embedded in social practices and the unconscious that the dominated scarcely perceive it as [dominance].”[vi] Research suggests male-inflicted violence against women is “pervasive yet largely unseen,” as it is “exercised through everyday practices in social life where political, educational, religious and economical macro structures are based in the ideology of gender differences.”[vii]

South Africa’s men from across the racial spectrum are raised to see themselves as superior to women and taught that men should be tough, brave, strong and respected. Heavy drinking, carrying weapons and a readiness to defend honor with a fight are often seen as markers of manhood. The violence that ensues between men often has very severe consequences. With most men perceiving that women should submit to control by men, physical and sexual violence are used against women to demonstrate male power, and thus teach women ‘their place,’ and to enforce it through punishment. Thus gender inequality legitimates male violence over women, as well as being accentuated by the use of such violence.[viii]

Gillian Paterson writes a concise synopsis about this normalization process in her book, Women in the Time of AIDS.[ix] “Physical violence against women . . . becomes accepted as part of the ‘normal’ way that things are.”[x] She goes beyond the description of the process, however, to suggest how HIV/AIDS is prompting a paradigm shift since survival itself is at stake. Throughout the book, she promotes a way forward through a participatory development model that wishes not to alienate men, but to involve them in the process so as to secure a lasting shift. Epstein, too, underscores how important it is to address male responsibility in programs aimed at reducing rape statistics in South Africa: “The epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa is part of a wider war between men and women that is as fierce and partisan as any other on the African continent, and it has been raging far longer. Empowering individual women without addressing the attitudes of men and society in general risks creating empowered women who antagonize men [thereby] playing right into the rapists’ hands.”[xi]

4. Male disempowerment. Sociologists have observed how men who are disempowered politically and culturally in colonized systems direct their power to spheres of influence that remain open to them. In a similar context of oppression as experienced by the indigenous peoples of Australia, Germaine Greer, for example, has argued in a book called On Rage that “the centuries of disempowerment, dispossession, discrimination, defamation, marginalization, murder,” and torture of Australian males has left a legacy of substance abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities that is directly traceable to oppression under an Australian version of apartheid policy.[xii] The pattern that Greer describes has parallels in many places, South Africa among them. According to Epstein,

[R]ape is an assertion of male power, not sexuality. [University of Pretoria anthropologist Isak] Niehaus speculates that men . . . found in acts of violence against women temporary relief from the humiliations of living in a society based on the presumption of white superiority. But these acts were not only misdirected expressions of racial anger. They were also ‘desperate protests against men’s loss of control’ over women. . . . The epidemic of rape may be a reaction to their perceived loss of status. In response they are reviving ‘scripts of male domination’ with deep historical resonance.[xiii]

5. Broken familial structures. In his book Spots of a Leopard, a collection of essays about male identity shaped by hundreds of interviews conducted with men throughout Africa, Aernout Zevenbergen asserts, “rape is a signal of a society that is sick to the core.”[xiv] Pointing to South Africa’s long history of migrant labor, Zevenbergen believes apartheid’s practice of migrant labor, of sending men to work hundreds of miles from home to work in mines, resulted in the breaking apart of families that “set the stage ‘for an epidemic of young men who, in the absence of positive male role models, are now consumed by a sense of anger and entitlement. What we have are the wounds of men creating wounds in women, creating wounds in children. . . . Who is going to stop the vicious circle?’”[xv] The South African Medical Research Council lends credence to Zevenbergen’s assertions:

South African families are highly unusual by global norms. In South Africa, growing up as a child in a home with two biological parents is unusual. A majority of children are born outside marriage and there is generally no expectation of fathers having a social involvement in the lives of these children. They often also provide no financial support. Frequently children are raised by family members who are not their biological parents. Without their parent’s protection, children are extremely vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Whilst this is a problem in its own right, it also gives rise to intergenerational cycling of violence. Girls exposed to physical, sexual and emotional trauma as children are at increased risk of re-victimization as adults. Exposure of boys to abuse, neglect or sexual violence in childhood greatly increases the chance of their being violent as adolescents and adults, and reduces their ability to form enduring emotional attachments. Trauma during childhood impacts on brain development, enhancing anti-social and psychopathic behavior and reducing the ability to empathize.[xvi]

Related to broken familial structure is widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs, for “South Africa has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption levels per drinker in the world.” [xvii] The Medical Research Council again reports that many “acts of fatal and non-fatal violence occur after alcohol and drug abuse, especially fights, some types of homicide, and rape. Many victims of violence are also rendered vulnerable by alcohol.”[xviii] The report acknowledges the cycle of violence that alcohol and drug abuse perpetuates. “In a vicious cycle, victims of violence often start drinking heavily to deal with the trauma they have experienced, but their drinking makes it harder from them to escape from violence in their lives. Children are often left very vulnerable by their parents’ drinking.”[xix]

6. Lack of legal deterrents. It is estimated that less than 10% of reported rapes will result in a conviction in South Africa. The election of Jacob Zuma to the presidency in 2009 has not helped, for even he was accused of rape during his campaign, though he was later acquitted of the charges. In an interview with The Guardian, co-director of the Sonke Gender Justice Project, Dean Peacock is quoted as saying, “We’re at a complicated moment in South African history with revived traditionalism and there’s a danger of gender transformation being lost. We hear men saying, ‘If Jacob Zuma can have many wives, I can have many girlfriends.’ The hyper-masculine rhetoric of the Zuma campaign is going to set back our work in challenging the old model of masculinity.”[xx] Again, the Medical Research Council has stated,

With society accepting the use of violence in many circumstances, and the community very often protecting perpetrators, it is not surprising that law enforcement is generally very weak. Widespread corruption and general under-resourcing within the police force, as well as challenges of transformation and restructuring in the detective services, contributes to the problem. Few perpetrators are effectively punished, with the result that laws fail to provide deterrence and victims often have little faith in the system. / Despite the massive problem violence poses to the country, there has been a conspicuous lack of stewardship and leadership in the area of violence prevention from Government. The current policy of the Government which, simply put, is to ‘get tough’ on criminals, is unlikely to be a useful response to violence in the long term. Without widespread social and economic reforms, it fails to address the roots of violence and, equally problematically, it is both rooted in and serves to perpetuate many of the very ideas of manhood that underlie the problem of violence in society.[xxi]

All of this is to say that where poverty, myth of sexual cures for dreaded and prominent illnesses, cultural norms of male domination, male disempowerment, broken familial structures and lack of legal deterrents coalesce, risk is high for high incidents of rape and sexual violence to be committed against women. Where there are high incidents of rape and sexual violence committed against women, there is a high risk of HIV/AIDS infection.

Professor of medical anthropology at Harvard University Medical School and founder of Partners in Health, an organization devoted to provided high-quality medical services and pharmaceutical access to people living in the poorest communities throughout the world, Paul Famer has written extensively about gender inequality, poverty, and AIDS. Although his books tend to focus on his experiences in Haiti, the public health challenges he describes are relevant elsewhere, as the patterns to which he bears witness in Haiti have, in an age of globalization, replicated in many places throughout the world. In his book Women, Poverty, and AIDS: Sex, Drugs, and Structural Violence, Farmer explains how women are both biologically and socio-economically more vulnerable to an infection than men:

Certain studies suggest that per-exposure transmission from man to woman during genital-genital intercourse is two to five times more efficient than from woman to man. Other investigations have prompted researchers to argue that HIV is up to 20 times more efficiently transmitted from men to women than vice versa. HIV is more highly concentrated in seminal fluids than in vaginal secretions and may more easily enter the bloodstream through the extensive convoluted lining of the vagina and cervix. Vulnerable penile surface area is much smaller. . . . One recent study suggests that certain strains of HIV may grow better in a type of cell lining in the vaginal wall.[xxii]

Farmer also explains how female risk for HIV goes beyond biological risk factors alone.

[B]iological risk alone does not explain soaring infection rates among women. Women’s precarious social status, a direct result of gender inequality and amplified poverty, magnifies each of these biological predispositions. In addition to the gendered power differentials characterizing most sexual unions, women are denied equal access to economic resources, housing, health care, legal protections, land, schooling, inheritance, and employment in the formal sector of most societies. Wage-earning women may be obliged to supply sex to supervisors as a condition of employment. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Women who work in the low-wage informal sector may also be forced to supplement meager earnings with sex work. Still others can find no employment in the informal sector except sex work. Male violence, whether threatened or actualized, is also all too commonly used to control women throughout their lives and increases their vulnerability to infection. In many cases, such violence is legally as well as socially sanctioned.[xxiii]

Any effort, therefore, to minimize the risk for replication of South Africa’s statistics pertaining both to sexual assault incidents as well as to HIV/AIDS prevalence rates must be multi-dimensional, addressing opportunities for income generation for both genders as well as financial independence for women, campaigns to distribute factual information about the biology of HIV/AIDS and its treatment, as well as information targeted to raise awareness about gender domination and its alternatives. South Africa has many NGOs working in these areas and their work is invaluable to the lives that are touched by their efforts and services. Also underway are governmental efforts to broaden the impact of endeavors aimed at eliminating poverty, ending the age of AIDS denialism, challenging a culture of female subordination, empowering males by creating meaningful work in every region of the country thereby also shielding familial structures from the harsh impacts of migrant labor, and enforcing laws already in place and revising unhelpful laws for the protection of women and children.


[i] Megan Lindow, “South Africa’s Rape Crisis: 1 in 4 Men Say They’ve Done It,” TIME (20 June 2009;,8599,1906000,00.html, accessed 30 August 2011).

[1] Ibid.

[ii] R. Jewkes, et. al, “Preventing Rape and Violence in South Africa: Call for Leadership in A New Agenda for Action,” MRC Policy Brief (November 2009), 1; (accessed August 30, 2011).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Nicole Itano, “South Africa Begins Getting Tough on Rape, WENews (24 February 2003;, accessed August 31, 2011).

[v] Helen Epstein, The Invisible Cure: Why We are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa (New York: Picador, 2007), 228-238, esp. 234.

[vi] Diana Gibson, “Rethinking Domestic Violence: Case Studies from the Western Cape, South Africa,” in Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, Working Paper Series, October 2004.

[vii] Ibid, 3.

[viii] Jewkes, 1.

[ix] “His and Hers: A Note on Gender Analysis” in her book, Women in the Time of AIDS (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), 30-35.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Epstein, 234-235.

[xii] Germaine Greer, On Rage, Melbourne University Publishing, 2010; see also Gideon Polya, “Book Review: On Rage by Germaine Greer,” MWC News, 27 June 2009.

[xiii] Epstein, 232-233; quoting Isak Niehaus, “‘Now Everyone Is Doing It’: Towards a Social History of Rape in the South Africa Lowveld,” research working paper presented at Sex and Secrecy, a conference of the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society, July 12, 2003.

[xiv] Aernout Zevenbergen, Spots of a Leopard: On Being a Man (Laughing Leopard Production, 2009); see also Lindow.

[xv] Lindow.

[xvi] Jewkes, 2.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] David Smith, “Quarter of men in South Africa admit rape, survey finds,” in The Guardian (17 June 2009;, accessed August 31, 2011).

[xxi] Jewkes, 2.

[xxii] Paul Farmer, Women, 47.

[xxiii] Ibid, 50-51.

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