Recently, in a crime that shocked South Africa, 17-year-old Anene Booysen was brutally gang raped. Her throat was slit; her fingers and legs shattered. The attackers had stuck a broken glass bottle inside her body and left her for dead on a construction site in the small town of Bredasdorp, about 120 miles from Cape Town. She was discovered by a security guard and identified at least one of the alleged rapists, before dying soon after.
Brutal Gang rape and murder shocks South Africans
The attack on Anene Booysen is one of several similar incidents in India and Pakistan that have attracted worldwide attention and brought widespread public condemnation. It has also brought into much sharper focus, the problem of violence against women around the world. In South Africa, the problem is especially acute. As reported in The Daily Beast, “the Medical Research Council estimates that up to 3,600 rapes happen daily in this nation of close to 52 million people. This places South Africa among the countries with the highest incidences of rape worldwide–and, outside of war zones, makes it one of the most violent societies, especially towards women.”
The attack has stirred public outrage in the African nation. Marches have been held in protest and hundreds attended Booysen’s funeral. Activist Zubeida Shaik is one of the organizers of a planned mass march demanding an end to violence against women to take place on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14, 2013, in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She declared:
“We’re placing demands now. It’s no longer about being polite about rape. It’s not about saying, you know, ‘we’re going to advocate, and we’re going to lobby, and we’re going to do all of this with government structures and institutions etc.’ That’s gone now. We’ve done that. It hasn’t worked, we’ve got to move on, we’ve got to make it a community problem or find solutions within the community because that’s where the problems are.”
Many groups in South Africa, like Shaik, have been working outside official channels to bring attention to the problem and spur action by authorities. One such organization is the One Man Can Campaign which supports men and boys to take action to end domestic and sexual violence and to promote healthy, equitable relationships that men and women can enjoy.
This strong public reaction surprised many observers who say it may represent a fundamental shift in attitudes about violence toward women.
Female activists in India have also gone on the offensive following the brutal gang rape and death of a 23-year-old medical student. They have pushed for changes to Indian laws about rape, but are denouncing an ordinance put forth by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on Sunday to amend criminal laws on sexual crimes against women. The activists say the law was “crafted behind closed doors” and if passed by the Indian Parliament, would do little if anything to confront the widespread culture of violence against women there. As in South Africa, organizers and community activists are not waiting on their governments to take action. New alliances are forming across a wide swath of Indian society. As women’s rights activist Kamla Bhasin of Sangat, a South Asia feminist network noted:
“The spontaneous churning that has taken place is absolutely incredible. This agency by young people, students, lawyers, doctors, housewives and groups across the spectrum is a defining moment for us. It means violence against women is no longer just a woman’s issue.”
The lethargy of governments in taking action on the issue of violence against women is not unique to the developing world. In the United States, Congress has been slow to renew the Violence Against Women Act in the U.S. which was originally passed in 1994 and then allowed to expire in 2011. Congressional wrangling has blocked efforts to renew the law. Now it appears that the Senate may finally be close to renewing the Act, though its passage is far from certain.
The recent rapes in India and South Africa were horrifying in their savagery. Justice will be sorted out in the courts and law making bodies; history will determine whether the measures taken were appropriate. But the real tipping point will come when we, as a world community, realize that such attacks against women do violence to all of us, and degrades our humanity.