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Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Home" is the most dangerous place for women and girls

Charlene Smith


An interview with Charlene Smith by Zara Majidpour

Charlene Smith was 17 years old when she reported on the 1976 Soweto uprising. As a journalist she has over 20 years experience in political and economic issues. Charlene published 13 books including, “Mandela, “Robben Island”, and “Proud of Me”, etc. She is a media consultant and documentary film maker. Charlene Smith has received numerous awards like “woman of the year”, “person of the year” and “2000 CNN African journalist of the year".

In 1999 she was raped and stabbed in her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since then she became an activist in the fight against sexual violence and the spread HIV-AIDS “I didn’t keep quiet under apartheid and I won’t be silent now”, she says with regard to her campaign to make drugs and other forms of support accessible to people with HIV-AIDS. She has also initiated a website for rape survivors called “Speak Out” This website is run by volunteers. In the interview with Charlene Smith I asked her the following questions:

1- The South African security crisis has long been ignored by most politicians. However during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the government has deployed almost 44 000 police officers across the country to improve security. Why did they not do this before the country earned the title of rape capital and Johannesburg became known as the most dangerous city in the world?

C: I think for the same reason that rape is the crime least likely to result in an effective conviction anywhere in the world, conviction rates are at around 5% to 6% for most of Europe and the USA. For the same reason that sexual trafficking is now a more profitable crime than drug trafficking. The whole world pays lip service to women's rights, but are slow in acting to ensure they are protected. And women too are to blame, we keep silent about the harm that befalls us and thereby protect the perpetrators and make it easier for society to turn its face - or if we speak out it is too often as angry, vengeful people, it is not all men who are the problem, it is only those that harm, we need to motivate all of society to work with us to prevent all forms of harm and violence.

Woman have paid a lot of attention to our rights in the workplace but less to those at home, so home is now the most dangerous place in the world for women and girls, it is the place where we are most likely to get raped, insulted, harmed, murdered ... and most often by those we love and trust, not strangers despite the mythology. The rapid process of perpetrators through courts during the World Cup, special courts, dedicated investigation units and most of all signs of police on roads, in shopping malls and in public places instead of sleeping behind their desks has seen all crime drop by around 24% according to the Institute of Security Studies and that carries vivid lessons for the nation. Cops have to get out of stations and onto the streets. Courts have to work faster and give heavier sentences.

A man who mugged Portuguese journalists and stole a camera got 15 years, the same as the person who raped and stabbed me. Our values are wrong, but not just here elsewhere, globally we act far harsher against economic criminals than those who commit crimes against people.

2- As an anti-rape campaigner, what do you think has caused South Africa’s rape crisis?

So many things, but again it is similar to elsewhere - a lack of respect for women, men in leadership positions that refuse to take action or speak out against harm against women and set very poor examples in their personal lives, parenting being left almost exclusively to women, men who refuse to adopt positive ways of masculine behaviour, a lack of respect for children and their rights and most of all massive failures in the criminal justice system - the closure of specialised policing units, not enough resources or training for those who investigate rape, a lack of medical resources for those raped, poor training of prosecutors and judges, a low priority on putting away rapists for a long time, a failure in judicial oversight and action taken against those judges or magistrates who sentence inappropriately and this is the most important thing that has to happen globally.

3- In 1999 a week after you were sexually assaulted and stabbed in your own home, you published an article about what had happened to you. What made you speak up rather than remain silent keeping in mind that you are a well known person?

- Well I wasn't a well known person then unless you happened to be passionately interested in politics, I was a political journalist. I felt I had the capacity as a journalist to do what others feared, to access the media, I had friends in high political positions and exerted pressure on them, as a former anti-apartheid activist I knew how to wage a political or pressure campaign, but most of all I was very angry with myself for failing to report on the massive harm that came to women and children in this country and the huge disrespect with which those harmed are treated. I was very angry and as a mother I wanted to act to help create a society to protect my children and all children. I had also been writing about HIV since 1985 when a friend of mine was diagnosed and immediately realised the grave risks rape put women at, the fact that no one was doing anything about this and that lots needed to be done. Still not enough is being done here or elsewhere, I believe if we prioritised helping rape survivors in the fight against HIV we would immediately and rapidly cut transmission rates by at least 20% globally.

4-Your book “Proud of me, Speaking out against sexual violence and HIV” which is about your experience, has been translated into Swedish (Utan Skuld). Why do you think the book became so popular?

Because it was not just about me, it had the stories of others, our struggles, it hailed good men and noted the importance of including them in our struggle, it roundly criticised religions for their failures in stopping the pandemic of violence against women and children and attacked politicians for their inaction.

I think, hope, that for many people, men and women they felt it was talking directly to them and with them ... or so some have told me.

This interview was translated into Persian (Farsi) and published in Shahrzadnews website