More than a Prayer: Your Response to Sexual Violence and HIV. 15/10/2013

Catherine Sozi, Presentation to the National Church Leaders Meeting

As I was driving to this meeting this evening, I heard on radio that there is trouble in Diepsloot. 2 toddlers, aged 2 and 3, have been found dead and mutilated, possibly raped this afternoon, in a toilet and the community have gone berserk. This sets the scene for what I want to talk to you about.

Sexual violence and HIV in South Africa and your response to it…..we need more than a prayer.

Just last month, in September 2013, UNAIDS presented the latest UNAIDS Global AIDS Report in which we recorded the progress that countries have made with regards to the HIV epidemic.

Globally, new HIV infections among adults and children reduced by 33% since 2001. In children alone, new HIV infections reduced to 260 000 in 2012, a reduction of 52% since 2001. AIDS-related deaths have also dropped by 30% since the peak in 2005 as access to antiretroviral treatment expands. By the end of 2012, some 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries were accessing antiretroviral therapy, an increase of nearly 20% in just one year.

And the global contribution has been markedly influenced by successes in South Africa. The number of children born with HIV has reduced from 28,000 to 14,000 in one year. The number of people ever started on ARVs where just over 2m by the end of 2012 resulting in fewer deaths and an increase in life expectancy over a 5 year period. Quite remarkable!

But while the news is good, the rate of new infections in young women between the ages of 15 and 24 remains staggeringly high, even though it has reduced considerably –the number of young females aged 15-24 years living with HIV has decreased from 870,000 [810,000 – 1,100,000] in 2005 to 710,000 [660,000 – 860,000] in 2012. Numbers always confuse the picture but if you put faces to the numbers, you get the picture. By contrast, their male peers HIV infection rate remains considerably lower but that of the older men (and we are talking just 5 -8 years older) is higher.

And while we have known all along that women and girls still face the higher risk of HIV infection—and that violence, specifically sexual violence, fuels the epidemic in women and girls, our actions are cause for concern. Sexual violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s increased vulnerability to HIV. Violence limits women’s ability to engage in HIV preventive habits and when girls and women are abused at an early age they are likely to engage in behaviour that places them at greater risk for HIV. In addition, the stigma of being HIV positive and being a victim of violence diminishes self-esteem and quality of life.

This is not to say that sexual violence does not happen with boys and men…it does. And so the case for handling the problem cuts across both genders even though we know the scope of the problem is much more in females

In many of our societies, women and girls face unequal opportunities, discrimination, and human rights violations. Now everyone knows that gender equality is enshrined as a fundamental right in the South African Constitution. The country boasts a range of laws and policies which promote gender equality and protect the rights of all citizens especially women and girls against all forms of violence. These include the Domestic Violence Act; Sexual Offences Act; etc. 65 at the last count! And while laws may exist in the books to protect our rights and give us greater opportunities, these rights aren’t always fulfilled or supported by society and its leaders—including faith leaders.

So while I am talking about sexual violence and its link with HIV, I think I need to define what is meant by sexual violence.

Sexual violence is any kind of violence enacted through sexual means or targeting the sexuality of another, regardless of age and gender.

It includes penetration of the vagina or anus with any foreign object, forced vaginal, anal or oral sex, the cutting or mutilation of sexual parts, forced marriage/cohabitation, forced impregnation, forced abortion, forced sterilization, sexual humiliation, medical experimentation on a person’s sexual and reproductive organs, forced prostitution, coercive sex, trafficking in men/women, and pornography.

This broad definition I think is very important, to ensure that all sexual violence survivors get the support they need, but also so that all sexually violent practices are addressed for what it is…….namely sexual violence.

So I want to use a few minutes this evening to propose that the church is systematically weak / absent in responding to the reality of sexual violence, both in a preventative sense and in after-care. And as such congregations are actively creating a context in which sexual violence survivors are stigmatised and discriminated against, and in which sexually violent practices are condoned.

It is unacceptable that South Africa has the largest prevalence of sexual violence in the whole world. An estimated 55 000 rapes of women and girls are reported to the police every year. This is estimated to be nine times lower than the actual number - we know from the police statistics that rape and other sexual offences are largely under reported.

You may have heard or read of a 2010 study by the Medical Research Council of South Africa , which reported that one in three men interviewed in Gauteng Province admitted to having raped a woman, while a similar study in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape reported one in every four men admitting to at least one rape.

In addition, a study done based on survivors accessing help at Government Thuthuzela rape survivor centres across South Africa points out that South African children between the ages of 12 and 17 are more likely to be raped than South Africans of any other age. In the three years that were reviewed during the study, more than 34 000 survivors visited these centres. While these statistics are limited in scope and do not paint a picture of the entire situation across South Africa, it says a lot about what is happening in South Africa to date.

So what exactly has been done by so many people and institutions in the country?

If we were to do an audit of response – as was highlighted in the country UN HLM report – an impressive list would follow. The South African response to rape and sexual violence is and continues to be determined and strong. Government has put in place laws, policies and guidelines. Civil society organisations – particularly women’s advocacy groups; men’s organisations; human rights advocates, work tirelessly to ensure women’s rights are protected and where necessary legal redress is afforded…… …..but curiously, it doesn’t seem to be gelling.

3 weeks ago, I was in Eastern Cape, attending a traditional ceremony – they were at the end of a month’s workshops where they had been teaching their adolescent girls the values of looking after themselves and one key area was on the promotion of abstinence. During this process, it came to light that one of the teenage girls was being repeatedly raped by her uncle, in the homestead.

As many survivors do, she and her mother turned to her church for support, but found it lacking in many ways. For one, both felt that they were being blamed for the actions of the uncle – the same sentiments followed; at the police and in court. There are many such examples. A question often asked by victims of sexual violence – who do we turn to? Do I turn to my priest? Would he be receptive if I turned to him for support? How will he react when he hears the rapist is my husband? Those who have been sexually assaulted suffer in silence due to the stigma associated with the crime.

There is no doubt that it takes more than prayer to heal and empower girls and women who have endured sexual violence—to transform them from victims to survivors. It takes compassionate leadership that reaches beyond scripture and traditional rites and teachings.

While the church can be a rock-solid source of unmoving strength to a community, it must also be able to respond sensitively to the needs of those who have been hurt. For example, when the church advocates for strong families, can it appreciate that the danger to women and girls often lurks inside their own homes? Do care, support and justice extend to women who sell sex or use drugs or who are disabled or boys and men who have been sexually assaulted? Or who are transgendered? Yes. There should be no line that distinguishes who deserves and who does not.

Women and girls, boys and men, who have been victims of violence need many things: To have their dignity restored and to be protected from stigma and shame. To ensure their attackers are brought to justice. To have access to psychological and medical care, including sexual and reproductive health. And ultimately, to be empowered as leaders in achieving full equity in their worlds.

But that is really looking at the care component of sexual violence, which I propose must be stepped up.

But what about prevention? Minister Motsoaledi is always talking about ‘Prevention being better than cure’.

Most of you in this room are probably parents. Maybe this is an assumption but if you are not then think of the youth groups or training or conversations that you have had so far, with your congregations.

Most of what I have described are the responses that are expected of women and girls. How fair is it that the expectation is laid squarely at their feet?

How many of you have had that “intimate” conversation with your son, your nephew, your brother, your uncle or even with some of your parishioners? The one where you said, "I love you and I need you to know that no matter how a woman dresses or acts, it is not an invitation to cat call, taunt, harass or assault her"?

Or when you told your son or parishioner, "A woman's virginity isn't a prize and sleeping with a woman doesn't earn you a point"?

How about the heart-to-heart where you lovingly conferred the legal knowledge that “a woman doesn't have to be fighting you and you don't have to be pinning her down for it to be RAPE. Intoxication means she can't legally consent, NOT that she's an easy score."

Or maybe you recall sharing this one "Your sexual experiences don't dictate your worth just like a woman's sexual experiences don't dictate hers."

Last but not least, do you remember calling your son or parishioner out when you discovered he was using a ‘four-letter’ word liberally? Or when you overheard him talking about some girl from school or even church as if she were more of a conquest than a person?  

I want you to consider these conversations and then ask yourself why you may not remember them. The likely reason is because you didn't have them. In fact, most parents, most religious leaders, haven't had them.

By contrast, here are some conversations you might have a better recollection of. I'll give you a telling hint: they probably weren't with your son or your nephew or your male parishioner.

"Be careful with the way you act and the way you dress -- it's easy to get a bad reputation."

"That's just the way boys are -- you can't give them any excuse to behave that way towards you."

"You need to be safe! When you dress that way, some people read it as an invitation."

"Never go out alone, never walk alone at night and never drink from a glass that you haven’t poured yourself."

These are conversations often had by loving parents like you, like me. They come from a place of care, they come from a place of concern but most notably they come from a place of upside-down, cultural indoctrination that is hurting, stifling and punishing young women and girls.

The cultural indoctrination that I'm speaking of goes something like this: It is a young woman's responsibility, and girl, to safeguard herself from rape, assault, harassment, stalking and abuse because boys will be boys, men will be men and some of them just can't help themselves.

When I told my sister this she said, that I am being unfair. But that doesn't change the fact that it's true. She said “I can't change the fact that there are creepy men out there behaving badly. I have to help my daughter protect herself."

So let's take a quick look at these "creepy men." Who are they, really? Who are the creepy men that are making it unsafe for your daughter, your wife, your sister, to go solo to the shops, even to a party on campus? Who are the creepy men that are cat-calling her or intimidating her with their words? Who are the creepy men that are stalking her? Harassing her? Attacking her?

Who are these "creepy men" and where did they come from AND who raised them?

We have more than enough data to conclude that the majority of perpetrators aren't "others," they are peers and classmates and ex-boyfriends and friends and more importantly for this audience, members of your congregations.

They are young or old men that your daughter, sister, wife, mother probably knows and interacts with. You cannot build a wall up around your daughter, sister, wife, mother to keep these men from entering her world -- they are already inside it.

As for who raised them? The answer, unfortunately, is me, you; its US.

I don't expect you to welcome what I am saying. I doubt many of you will even accept it. I want you to know that I'm not saying all boys and men are rapists or disrespectful of women -- and I'm certainly not saying that all boys and men are just wired that way.

What I am saying is this: we live in a culture that puts victims on trial with questions like, "well, what were you wearing?" and "how much did you drink?"

We live in a culture where a mother or father, concerned about raising sons who "act honourably", holds young women accountable for the way young men objectify them. We live in a culture where a judge hands down a 30-day sentence to a rapist because his 14-year-old victim was "older than her chronological age." “she looked older than her age”…..We live in a culture that relegates not getting raped to women and girls instead of expecting and demanding boys and men to be responsible for not raping. I, personally, have heard that in my church and have challenged my priest.

What I am saying is that we reap what we sow. And because of the proximity that the church has to its people, I wonder if we have had the “don’t rape” conversation with our sons, our nephews, our youth groups, our men’s clubs, our seminary students in the training colleges, ourselves……that this is wrong!

When you have the "avoid getting raped" conversation with your daughter, your sister, your aunt, it is difficult, as you don't want to imagine her as a victim.

The idea of having the "don't rape" conversation with your son, your nephew, your brother, your uncle, your male congregation is more difficult as you don't ever want to imagine him as a perpetrator.

But I would like to suggest that you do it anyway.

Do it because so many parents, guardians have thought they didn't need to and so many people have suffered because of it. See the proportion of men in prisons! I tried to get actual numbers of incarcerated males in prison in South Africa but had difficulty.

Do it because you love your son, your nephew, your brother, your uncle, your father and want him to have a bright future.

Do it because not doing it is irresponsible.  

Do it for your daughter or for your nieces or for young women in general because while this particular conversation might be terrifying, the much more terrifying reality is young girls and women continue to be taught to live in fear of men.

That is really what you're doing when you have the "don't get raped" conversation with your daughter. You are telling her to always be suspicious; you are telling her to spend her life looking over her shoulder; you are telling her that any man is a potential predator.

When I first had this conversation with the Archbishop, he asked me, but what is it that you really want to see? I responded that I want to wake up every morning, feeling safe, not having to look over my shoulder wondering which man is looking at me and why. I wanted to be in a place I felt safe and happy – for all of the time, not for most of the time.

You may feel at this stage….well, what she says may be true. And you're not wrong.

But sexual violence is pervasive despite the conversations many of you, many parents, have had with their daughters. What is true is that the "don't get raped" angle is not a successful strategy for curbing this pandemic. In fact, it is counter-productive as it perpetuates a culture where men don't feel the need to take responsibility.

Fortunately, we have the tools to curb these crimes. And I strongly believe that you can help to protect your daughter and other women and girls like her.

And you can do it from so many places - your living room, your pulpit, your youth groups, your youth camps, your prayer meetings, your training seminaries.

All you have to do is talk……..

Please….do speak out!

And do join the Archbishop on the 25th November 2013 at St Albans Cathedral, Pretoria where he will launch the “We Will Speak Out” campaign.

I thank you for listening and God bless you!


Tearfund UK
South African Police Service crime report, 2012
Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR), Stellenbosch University
“Conversations” Carina Kolodny


Catherine Sozi:

Nkhensani Mathabathe:

(012) 354 8490 (UNAIDS South Africa)

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