On Sunday 18 April 2016, a ‘reference list’ naming alleged rapists at Rhodes University, widely referred to as the #RUReferenceList, was published on social media, catalysing various student protests against institutionalised rape culture at the university. The student-led #Chapter212 campaign is protesting the University’s sexual assault policy, arguing that it allows for impunity of perpetrators, and does not sufficiently support rape survivors. The Student Representative Council and the #Chapter 212 campaign are calling for an academic shutdown pending amendments to the sexual assault policy that broaden its definition of rape, and that removes the burden of proof on survivors to show that their rapist intended to rape them.
Student demonstrations on the morning of 20 April 2016 were broken up by police with the use of tear gas and stun grenades. Six students were arrested, and one was hospitalised.
Often we think of sexual violence in South Africa as most prevalent in impoverished communities and assume men there are more likely to embrace masculine ideals that support sexual entitlement than other men. This conceptualisation of where sexual violence happens and by whom overlooks women’s risk of sexual assault in spaces like university campuses and professional workplaces as well as the fact that men from diverse socio-economic backgrounds hold gender-inequitable beliefs and engage in sexually violent practices. The #Chapter212 protests at Rhodes University are just one of a number of movements by students worldwide challenging universities on the way that they handle rape and sexual assault on campuses.
Rape culture at universities is symptomatic of failure to address widespread gender-based violence in South Africa.
Students’ response to the release of the #RUReferenceList, and other non-violent demonstrations at this university reflect high levels of frustration with the lack of legal and psychosocial support for survivors of rape and gender based violence. This is a problem that extends well beyond university campuses. South Africa has one of the highest rates of reported rape in the world, and the cases reported to police represent just a fraction of sexual violence cases. The #Chapter212 campaign highlights the urgent need to provide a sensitive and well-resourced response to gender based violence.
Although South Africa has put robust laws in place to deal with sexual violence, the implementation of these laws is often very poor. Effective responses to and prevention of gender based violence requires the cooperation of multiple sectors of government and civil society. This is why Sonke is advocating for the formulation and development of a fully-costed, evidence-based, multi-sectoral, inclusive and comprehensive National Strategic Plan to end GBV.
Sonke Gender Justice stands in solidarity with non-violent protestors at Rhodes University, and most importantly, with survivors of sexual violence at Rhodes University, other university campuses, and any woman, man or child who has experienced gender based violence. We recognise the far-reaching negative consequences the #RUReferenceList has had for rape survivors, the alleged perpetrators, the legal presumption of innocence and fair process. Moreover, we do not support the heavy-handed response by the police to student protests against sexual assault. We applaud the University’s statement that it “condemns rape and sexual violence and seeks to provide a consistent, caring, and timely response when sexual assaults occur within the University community”. We hope that the protests and conversation generated as a consequence will catalyse a comprehensive response to gender based violence from universities, government and civil society.
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