SA exports a culture of sexual abuse

For outsiders not used to war zones and conflict areas, it is her age that will probably make you read the sentence a second time, probably suspecting a typographical error. But in war zones and countries emerging from war across Africa, a 14-year old sex worker probably does not warrant a second glance. That is the underbelly of international intervention and goodwill missions that seldom receive much newspaper columns or analysis. South Africa has a long, involved history in trying to bring peace to Burundi which started with Nelson Mandela and reached its apex under Thabo Mbeki, where former deputy president Jacob Zuma was the key mover in securing a peace deal that led to elections and the inauguration of the current government less than a year ago. So many crucial political decisions were decided in South Africa that some Burundians felt they had sacrificed some of their sovereignty to Pretoria. South African peacekeepers have an unmistakable presence in Bujumbura, highly visible walking in the streets and in bars and restaurants. Burundi, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, have been the African peacekeeping missions in which South Africa has had decisive political influence and clout. But the military court case underway in Burundi points to the disadvantages of international interventions. This is not the first time that a South African peacekeeper has been implicated in the sexual abuse of local women ‘ with numerous allegations made against South African troops serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is only because she was killed that a 14-year old called Therese Nkeshimana even warrants a mention. If you have spent a considerable amount of time in Africa’s war zones and conflict areas, you will know most sex workers look 14 after applying wigs and tons of make-up. Often you see foreign (most often white) men walking into bars and restaurants with girls (and often one on each arm) who look to be in their mid-teens ‘ making you suspect that without their make-up and adult clothes, they are probably a lot younger. Allegations of sexual abuse against peacekeepers first surfaced in Sierra Leone, and the United Nations is still grappling with how to prosecute and deal with the increasing and consistent allegations from other countries. In Sierra Leone and the DRC there were allegations that humanitarian workers and peacekeepers were coercing girls and women into sex in exchange for food. Often, these were the daily rations the women were entitled to. In addition there were other allegations of rape. Humanitarian and peacekeeping intervention profoundly impacts on the society it is trying to help. Besides often bringing peace and security to war-torn countries, it is almost always accompanied by impacts on food markets, housing prices, salary levels as a result of employment with international agencies, and the turning of the local women into concubines and sex workers (a significant number whom are under-age), and a sense of entitlement to these women that comes along with having money and power in a country that has been devastated into Year Zero. In post-war Sierra Leone, it seemed as if the entire capital Freetown had been turned into a white playground of drunkenness and men from the international community behaving in ways that would be unconscionable at home. Though this is not to suggest that only white men were implicated in the abuse of local women ‘ in fact peacekeepers from across the globe have been implicated. In future, when peacekeepers and men from international agencies talk fondly of their memories of working in the worst, most broken-down parts of the world, it’s time we start asking, “What was your pleasure?” It is the deeply unequal relationship between the powerful, moneyed and armed foreign men and the poor, war-wrecked local population that goes a long way to ensuring that much abuse against the local population happens with little risk of prosecution or justice. In Sierra Leone, local activists knew the moment Nigerian troops accused of rape and other crimes were sent back to home to face sanction, it was more likely that the plane ride back home would be the extent of punishment and justice. But it is with little irony that a South African peacekeeper is on trial accused of allegedly abusing (and killing) a Burundian minor, the same week that the man who was the architect of Burundi’s peace is on trial for rape in the Johannesburg High Court. If there are analogies to be drawn, it must be between the link between South African maleness and allegations of female abuse. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape and female abuse in the world. We are quick to point to our progressive constitution, but perhaps it’s time to look at the shameful levels of our abuse figures ‘ and treatment of women ‘ to understand just how deeply the country has failed the majority section of its population. If the sexual abuse of women is the one of the most fervently practiced non-racial activities in South Africa, it’s the protection and respectability enjoyed by men who rape in South Africa that is most startling. Ask any South African woman and I am sure they will each be able to name at least one man in their social and political circles who have raped a sister with impunity – and who is greatly lauded and revered by his peers. Human rights activists speak of rape survivors being “raped” a second time by the media, society and the court system if she should ever want justice. The behaviour of Jacob Zuma and his supporters outside the court has taken this metaphor to its vilest conclusion. Umshimi wami has done much to liberate South Africa. But it’s that other, metaphorical umshimi wami, so graphically supported, revered and venerated outside the Johannesburg High Court that really points to the cancer at the heart of South African society. The pride of post-apartheid South Africa is that we who liberated ourselves can now play crucial roles in trying to bring peace to the continent. But perhaps we should see that while we’re exporting our practice of political pragmatism to conflict areas across the world and the continent, we are also exporting our culture of rape and sexual abuse to countries that already suffer under unconscionable levels of violence. l Karen Williams is a journalist and media consultant who works across Africa and Asia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

March 2006
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