Rape and violence against women is endemic in South Africa, but it is a thorny subject matter. How do we bring this discussion to the foreground in South Africa, what are the words we use, and where do we start?
Words matter. They matter because they are carriers not only of information, but carriers of feelings. When they land, words have the power to heal, revive, restore and educate but they also have an enormous power to debilitate and to trigger. But words are our thoughts, and without them we cannot speak, so how do we use them when we speak about rape? A violent scourge plaguing South Africa, encompassing noun, is not the heart of the very word [rape], triggering in itself?
One of the reasons mainstream media has come under scrutiny for reporting on sexual assaults against women is because they find themselves completely at a loss for sensitivity when it comes to reportage. So what do they do? They stop reporting on the incidents instead. Here’s what happens when issues stop appearing in the news – or better, appear less: Society stops talking about it, the discussion disappears into the shadow, voices are silenced, and communities suffer alone, by themselves.
Kathleen Dey, Director of Rape Crisis South Africa says, “Stories about rape form only about 1% of all media coverage. We need editorial commitment to increasing the volume of reporting without creating moral or compassion fatigue, so we need to be creative about how we produce content and messaging”.
Media needs to be at the forefront of taking on the responsibility about influencing society to have these conversations. Societies should be faced with stories that reflect sexual assault in a truthful, careful manner because a lot of culture in society is shaped by storytellers and one of the ways rape culture can cease to exist is by creating a space that is safer for women, girls and all survivors of sexual assault and one that is more threatening to rapists. But if we don’t talk about it, no one gets that message.
Dey also highlights the importance of engaging with communities, “We need to strengthen communication with communities affected by rape using multiple languages and platforms. We need to tell real stories about the lived experience of rape survivors being conscious of whose stories are told, who tells them, where they are told and how. We need these voices and messages to be amplified”.
“Journalists and other communications professionals need gender and diversity training so that they can speak to these issues in a more powerful way. Feminism has so much to teach us about how we tell stories and we need to have more discussion and debate at various levels on what this could be,” she continues.
The media is a mirror to society and society is a mirror to the media. So goes the old adage, but there is no time better than the present to take that very mirror and hold it up to those in government and make them face the scourge as well. The South African government has had its own anti-sexual-violence messaging tainted for too long by its very members committing a couple of heinous crimes which are not always adequately addressed. When the government fails, it also fails its people.
Dey says, “Government is a key audience. We need political will for addressing sexual violence now more than ever. Media can get to government… We need to challenge rape culture and explore ways of building a culture of respect for consent whatever context we are aiming to change through our engagements. We need to actively support women’s leadership”. That last portion begs special mention: Support women’s leadership.
Newsrooms, government offices and even police stations are rife with the imbalances of powers. Misogyny will always favour the powerful and silence the ones who have been sexually abused, sexually assaulted, raped etc. Up until the 1970s in some countries, women weren’t even allowed to testify in their own rape cases – she was considered not to be a reliable source of her own rape. Biblically, rape is referred to as a theft of property, not of the woman but of the father or husband. The men who “own” the women, and now, centuries after the great book we find ourselves in a position where far too few stories of women by women exist in order to bring about any real change.
Dey says, “There are few messages challenging patriarchy and challenging myths and stereotypes about rape.”
According to the Director of Rape Crisis, the media only report on about 1% of sexual assault stories. “There is a lack of a comprehensive messaging strategy on rape and sexual violence with key messages at the heart of each piece coming through without any degree of clarity.”
But while we work on our words, let’s make one thing clear: The discussion on rape needs to be made institutional in a way that brings about real change.