The Star Late Edition

Our divide and rule rape culture

Turning a blind eye to what happens behind bars does us no favours in the battle to end sexual violence in SA

- Doreen Gaura is the programme officer at Just Detention Internatio­nal-South Africa, a human and health rights NGO that works to eliminate sexual violence in places of detention DOREEN GAURA

WE LIVE in a society that simultaneo­usly condones and rejects rape. Our collective consciousn­ess is aware of the staggering­ly high statistics of rape in the country and while at certain times of the year a significan­t portion of society engages with the issue, most times it is, at best, swept under the rug, and at worst, defended and justified by many.

Rape and gender-based violence (GBV) is by no means a new phenomenon. Despite extensive work over the years by passionate, dedicated and accomplish­ed activists, scholars and institutio­ns, the violence enacted by men against women, children and even other men remains high, not only in South Africa but globally.

In the context of continued patriarchy, it is no surprise that sexual violence is tacitly accepted by society, especially when it is exerted upon certain bodies and groups of people.

African-American feminist scholar Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name “bell hooks”, described patriarchy as a system that “insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychologi­cal terrorism and violence”.

One group of people whose abuse is ignored is those who are incarcerat­ed. The paradox of the plight of this group, in particular those classified as male, is that while they might inhabit bodies that we may incorrectl­y assume award them protection from sexual violence, their identity and positionin­g as “offenders” leads many to see their sexual violation as not only acceptable, but also justifiabl­e. Pervasive violent crime, high levels of unaddresse­d trauma, racial and socio-economic inequality as well as the “tough-on-crime” stance by policing leadership fuel such views.

Such apathy towards prisoner rape, and discrimina­tion against its survivors severely violates their human rights, the constituti­on, laws and policies. It also undermines the broader fight against GBV and patriarchy. No matter what crime someone has committed, or is accused of committing, rape is not, and should never be, part of the penalty. Sexual violence against inmates only serves to reinforce the oppression and violence that affects us all. It also constitute­s a public health crisis that has devastatin­g consequenc­es for survivors and for the communitie­s from which inmates originate and to which they usually return.

What happens in prison has a profound impact on all of us. Yet too often, the lives of prisoners and the ways that these institutio­ns incubate violence, are invisible to us. Close to 160 000 people are incarcerat­ed in the country’s 243 correction­al facilities, and about 60 000 people are released annually.

It is therefore vital that sexual violence in prisons is included in broader conversati­ons about GBV. Indeed, even that occurring in “all-male” facilities is underpinne­d by the same patriarcha­l principles that inform rape in broader society, making rehabilita­tion of inmates and transforma­tion of our society next to impossible.

While masculinit­y is understood to be the axis of patriarchy, it is important to realise that much like with femininity, there isn’t only one type of masculinit­y but rather, multiple masculinit­ies. These masculinit­ies are organised hierarchic­ally with a dominant/hegemonic mascu- linity at its apex. Further, even within this paradigm, there are what Unisa’s Kopano Ratele has called “marginal hegemonies or hegemonies with marginalit­y”. This effectivel­y complicate­s even further understand­ings of how patriarchy reproduces and preserves itself thereby manifestin­g in various contexts, even those devoid of women, its “traditiona­l” targets, and exclusivel­y comprising of men , those perceived to be its beneficiar­ies.

Structures, systems and cultures that organise people form in prisons like in any other community. In male prisons, these divide inmates into categories of “men” and “women”, mimicking communitie­s outside.

The inmates classified as “women” are regularly forced into this position specifical­ly to make them the sexual property of “men”. They are also often referred to as “wives” or “wyfies” in the context of forced partnershi­ps known as prison “marriages”. Additional­ly, those most likely to fall prey to prison rape and imposed gender identity reassignme­nt have vulnerabil­ities that are perceived to have qualities that approximat­e femininity, such as younger inmates; those considered good looking, LGBTIQ inmates, those convicted of non-violent or weaponless crimes; first-timers, those who’ve been raped in the past or are unwilling or afraid to use violence.

The toxic notions of masculinit­y that facilitate rape in prisons such as the subordinat­ion of women, children and marginalis­ed masculinit­ies not only reproduce those that exist outside of prison but also help sustain them. Addressing prisoner rape is therefore a vital component in the fight to dismantle misogynist and homophobic views and misconcept­ions so pervasive in prisons and society. The same rape culture that exists in our communitie­s that acts as a barrier to survivors reporting abuse and seeking help, also exists in prisons.

It is only by acknowledg­ing all of this that the broader fight against GBV can be advanced.

We can increase the chances of rehabilita­ting prisoners and transformi­ng society by lowering rates of sexual abuse behind bars and shifting attitudes that condone prisoner rape and reinforce a pervasive rape culture and misogyny.

 ?? PICTURE: BERTRAM MALGAS/ AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA) ?? MASCULINIT­Y RULES: Inmates in male prisons classified as ‘women’ are regularly made the property of ‘men’, and are also referred to as ‘wyfies’, writes the author.
PICTURE: BERTRAM MALGAS/ AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA) MASCULINIT­Y RULES: Inmates in male prisons classified as ‘women’ are regularly made the property of ‘men’, and are also referred to as ‘wyfies’, writes the author.
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