The death of a young Indian woman on Saturday who suffered organ failure after being gang-raped, has reverberated beyond Asia to South Africa, which is battling its own epidemic of sexual violence.
News of the 23-year-old’s death in a Singapore hospital after she had been raped by six men and thrown out of a moving vehicle, prompted a groundswell of anger and introspection via social media about why South Africa persistently has some of the highest incidences of rape in world.
Students hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil for a gang-rape victim who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Ahmedabad. Credit: REUTERS
In a heated Twitter debate on Saturday, Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi angrily dismissed claims that sexual violence was caused by poverty or apartheid.
“No one can tell me that raping a three-month-(old) baby or 87-year-old granny or burning a library or vandalising a school is caused by poverty,” he wrote.
“Poverty can’t lead to an erection when seeing a 90-year or three-month-old.”
“Yes, apartheid humiliated, dehumanised and made people feel valueless - its existence in the past is no excuse for current moral degeneration.”
Facebook and BlackBerry users also commented on the gang rape and the protest against rape by Indian citizens.
Official statistics show that there were almost 65 000 sexual offences in South Africa last year, but police estimate that only one in 36 rape cases is reported.
Based on those figures, it is possible that 2.3 million South Africans have been victims of sexual offences, out of a total population of 50 million.
So South Africa is all too able to empathise with the victims of horrendous acts of sexual violence.
But events in Delhi and Singapore appear to have struck a painful chord in large part because of the subsequent protests in India, which raised difficult questions about whether South Africans were doing enough to come to terms with their own crisis.
“Here rapists attack everyone - from babies up to grannies and we sit and do nothing. A revolution is taking place in India,” said commentator Pinky Khoabane.
“We need the good men to stand up,” she added, decrying what she said was a systemic pattern of femicide.
An estimated 28 percent of South African men have committed rape, according to data from the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the International Centre for Research on Women.
That compares to 24 percent of men in India, according to the same data.
South Africa often appears to have become accustomed to levels of sexual violence that would be considered intolerable in other countries.
In November, six South African boys, including one aged 10, were charged with rape and the murder of three other children in a case that hardly made the newspapers.
President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial - at which he was acquitted - and the filmed gang rape of a 17-year-old girl with a mental age of four, were notable exceptions, and both sparked a national debate.
But analysts say the general resignation about sexual violence has partly to do with who the victims are.
Based on statistics from Gauteng, researchers have shown that almost 89 percent of reported rapes involve black women, who are predominantly poor.
Some 58 percent of the victims were unemployed and 15 percent were under the age of 11, according to figures published in the journal Crime Quarterly.
The same data showed 16 percent of reported rape cases in South Africa involve gang rape. - Sapa-AFP