Last Thursday, a 15-year-old student was relaxing in the schoolyard of her Johannesberg high school with a female friend. If she was nervous about anything, it was probably her upcoming exams. Her family members say that Jules High School, which the girl’s mother had carefully chosen and was paying nearly half her monthly income for, had sent all the students outside without supervision because they had no exam to complete that day.
The girl’s family says three boys offered the two girls a drink of Sprite. (Her family is the source of her story at the moment because she is reportedly “too distraught to talk.”) Immediately after drinking the soda, they became dizzy and drowsy — the girl says she is sure they were drugged. Then, the boys allegedly dragged the girl into an adjacent field and gang-raped her. Several other students reportedly watched the attack, and filmed it on their cell phones.
Victim-Blaming and Laughing at Rape
After surviving this ordeal, the girl found that her school seemed more interested in protecting the boys she said had raped her than in helping her. In fact, she found that her teachers were more than willing to participate in victimizing her. Not only did they make no effort to curb those who were sending cell phone videos of the attack to each other, the girl’s sister says she came upon a group of teachers watching the cell phone footage and laughing. According to a Commission for Gender Equality spokesman quoted in BBC News, they found it “hilarious.” The girl’s mother also says teachers at the school told her she “deserved what happened to her because she was drunk.”
While the teachers laughed and sneered, administrators and disciplinary officials twiddled their thumbs. The Commission for Gender Equality spokesman said that the school took no action because they didn’t want to “upset” the boys during exams. The girl’s uncle has told local newspapers (City Press and the Times) that the school headmaster was told of the attack right away and refused to do anything or even call the police. Instead, he allegedly said he doubted she had really been drugged and raped, and that if she had been she should go to a police station.
Could the Video Go Viral?
According to local press, the girl is receiving trauma counseling and medical attention, including emergency contraception and anti-retrovirals to try to stave off a possible HIV infection.
Unfortunately, it is likely that her ordeal is far from over. She is participating in an investigation and may be a key trial witness, which can be a grueling, humilitating, cruel process. Perhaps even more ominous is the possibility that cell phone videos of her alleged rape could spread. Videos are apparently still circulating in her school, and according to her family her fellow students are already using Facebook and Twitter to criticize her and gossip about the attack. Internet-ready videos can too easily lead to situations like this, in which photos of a Canadian girl being gang-raped were posted on Facebook and quickly went viral.
If video documentation of her alleged rape becomes available over the internet, the young Johannesberg woman may be subjected to violation after violation, as she is faced not only with strangers viewing her rape but also more victim-blaming and ridicule.
Brought Up To Rape
It’s no surprise that schoolboys in South Africa are capable of rape. In a 2009 study done in South Africa, one in four men interviewed admitted to being a rapist and 73% of the admitted rapists said they’d coerced someone into sex before they turned twenty. This country is so thick with men raping women that an inventor came up with a female condom with teeth in the desperate hope of finding a rape deterrent. Lesbians, children and babies, and sex workers are all common targets, but no one is safe from sexual violence. A study by Interpol estimates that one in two South African women is raped during her life.
There is no simple answer for why rape is so prevalent in South Africa. However, rape survivors, anti-rape advocates, and even rapists see a culture of machismo at the root of the problem: boys are socialized to believe they are entitled to sex from women, and that they aren’t manly unless they take sex by force. Dumisani Rebombo, who gang-raped a girl when he was 15 and says he now bitterly regrets his actions, says that before the rape, “I was constantly jeered for not being man enough.” After he and a friend raped a teenage girl in their village, “My friends sang and clapped as if we had done something right.”
It’s easy to see how this attitude played out in the current case: three teenage boys allegedly raped a classmate, and their behavior was affirmed by the responses of both their fellow students and their teachers. It was funny that they attacked a 15-year-old girl. It was their right. It was entertainment for everyone else.
These attitudes are far from unique to South Africa. For just one example from the United States, read Ximena Ramirez’s post about a high school cheerleader who was kicked off her squad for refusing to shout her rapist’s name while cheering for the basketball team. However, judging by statistics and anecdotal information, in South Africa the “culture of rape” is one of the worst in the world.
While nothing can undo the pain this young woman has experienced, she may at least get some measure of justice. Perversely, her school’s callousness has made the case a priority by stirring outrage across the country.
The girl quickly identified two of the boys she says were involved in the attack, and provided information on a third, as yet unidentified boy. The two boys she identified are 14 and 16, and attend local high schols. Charges have not yet been filed, and yesterday the two boys were released from police custody, leading some news organizations to report that “charges were dropped.” But province police assured City Press that the investigation is still being vigorously pursued and they are working to build an watertight case before bringing it to court.
The teachers may also be face consequences. The Times reports that the Education Department is hiring an independent investigatior to determine whether and how the teachers, school officials, and pupils involved should be disciplined. BBC News also quotes South Africa’s minister for women, children, and people with disabilities as saying, “The Children’s Act [more here] requires all people in positions of authority who suspect that child abuse may be taking place to report such incidents, and this includes teachers.”
Anti-rape advocates say that less than 1% of reported rapes in South Africa are successfully prosecuted.
Photo of hand holding phone from whiteafrican's flickr, reused with thanks under Creative Commons License.