The tragic irony: 16 days of brutal violence against children

I’m not sure when I became aware of the existence of this thing called rape; probably during my early teens. But from that moment, I have known with unwavering certainty that I would rather die than be raped. I simply don’t think I would be able to continue living. I live in awe of rape survivors who do and the support structures that help them find the will to live.

I started writing this on Wednesday 27th November, the third day of the 16 days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children. I’ve never before given this campaign any thought, disregarding it as nothing more than government’s payment of lip service to the frightening reality facing most women and children in South Africa every single day of the 365-day long year.

But yesterday, its cruel irony turned my world upside down. The nine-year-old niece of my domestic helper was raped. I’ll call her L.

The Presidency issued a media statement on Jacob Zuma’s launch of this year’s 16 days campaign at the Ikhaya Lethemba centre in Braamfontein. Hidden in this piece of political rhetoric is this disingenuous sentence:  “We have achieved a lot in the past 19 years with regards to fighting crime and promoting a safer South Africa for women and children.”

I don’t know what his basis for comparison is, but I’d hazard a guess that, with the possible exception of his own family ensconced in their own secure oasis, there are no women in South Africa who feel safer today than they did at any time in the past. Feeling safe is a child’s birthright. But, if South African children feel safe, it is only because they are too young to appreciate the dangers that face them. As a parent, while I guard my children fiercely and teach them the basics of stranger danger, I am not yet ready to scare their young minds with what happens to others their age every day all around us.

L’s mother has had to be even more vigilant with her children as they use public transport and spend more time away from her than mine do from me. I can’t imagine being a mother in South Africa who is forced to entrust her children to people she doesn’t know well.

The Presidency’s media statement also makes the blatantly obvious observation that “homes, streets, schools, the workplace, social and entertainment areas and everywhere else, should be safe for women and children. “ Platitudes like this one infuriate me. This is not some utopian ideal his government has invented – this is enshrined in our Bill of Rights as fundamental rights of the citizens of this country, rights we should all demand government respect.

Like our president, some of us are lucky enough to live in secure homes; we at least have a haven the reality out there can’t invade. But what if, while we protect ourselves from the monsters outside, danger lurks inside our own homes? L was raped in her own home by her own father.

It is now Thursday 28th November and the headline of this newspaper reads “Baby of six weeks raped”. The baby, whom I’ll call B, is fighting for her life.

B’s ordeal comes two days after matric drama students were asked to describe a simulated baby rape to maximise its horror. That there is even one person in our Department of Education that thinks that this is an appropriate question for a matric exam question is cause for great concern. That any number of people approved this question is something the Minister needs to account for. But no, right in the middle of the 16 days they justify their question by reference to the “best experts in the country who moderate these questions”. They escape responsibility as follows:

“The horror and aversion the audience feels is achieved without resorting to an actual rape. The candidate has to work out the best way to achieve this theatrically and symbolically. Nowhere is it expected of the candidate to have to literally describe the actual act of raping a nine month old baby.”

To add insult to injury, the only ‘remedy’ they offer is to mark sample papers to ascertain whether any candidates were disadvantaged. If so, they will exclude that question from their marking. I’m finding it difficult to write, so filled with anger and disbelief I can barely concentrate.

How does Madame Minister in her infinite wisdom propose inferring from candidates’ answers whether they have been “negatively affected’? How many older versions of L and B read that question and were hauled back to the moment of their own rape? How many were so traumatised they couldn’t focus on the rest of the paper, never mind the offensive question? I would have been. And I have never been raped.

If children are the future, and our children are scared and scarred, what does that mean for our future? I’m finding it increasingly difficult to call myself proudly South African.

This article first appeared in the Cape Times on 29 November 2013.