How the media removes rape victims voices

Franziska Seitz

I remember how I stared at the row of bears lying in front of me. The size of small infants, some had rope tied around their hands. Some had plasters on their mouths. Permanent marker indicated tears rolling down of almost all the plush toys’ eyes, while drawings on the rest of their bodies told stories of their own.

bobbibear 460x690 How the media removes rape victims voices

While the world is voicing its anger and disgust at the recent gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in India, who died as a result of her horrific injuries, I think of these bears. I encountered them as part of a presentation held by the organization Operation Bobbi Bear during my volunteer stay in South Africa in 2010. On their website, Operation Bobbi Bear reveals that reported cases of sexually abused children in South Africa have increased by 400% in the past 8 to 9 years. The organization, supported by Keep a Child Alive, stands up for these children through the support of victims in court and takes care of them medically and psychologically after the assault.

Statistically, South Africa is frequently cited as the “rape capital of the world”, with a shocking number of almost 60,000 reported rape cases in 2011. Similarly, India had a reported rate of almost 25,000 cases in the same year. The estimated figures of unreported cases remain much higher.

The ages of rape victims range from newborns to elderly women in both countries. Victims are mostly female. Cases of rape are rarely convicted and often victims remain silent. Apart from problematic criminal justice systems in both countries, the reporting of South African rape incidents becomes particularly difficult because of the countries’ eleven official languages, leading to important information frequently getting lost throughout the prosecution processes, particularly if the victims are children.

The bears are the children’s way to communicate what has happened. Operation Bobbi Bear uses the plush toys to record the stories of young victims, ensuring that no information is lost throughout legal proceedings, giving the children a voice that otherwise may not have been heard.

In my mind these bears have become the voice of many other victims worldwide – young or old. More importantly, they remind me of the fact that since the day of this presentation, I had almost forgotten about them.

Stories about rape are frequent in the news, particularly in countries like India and South Africa. They are usually reported as often as other violent incidents and sadly, nothing unusual anymore to anyone reading the newspapers. Psychologists term this phenomenon ‘desensitization’, a form of emotional apathy that is caused by the overflow of violence in the news.

As a consequence, rape incidents such as the one of Jyoti Singh often only break through this clutter due to their immense brutality or because they have been identified as newsworthy, paving their way into the international news. As an example, the world was equally shocked about the cases of various baby rapes in South Africa circulating in the news in 2001, whose ages ranged from five to nine months.

In 2011, those articles were replaced with reports on continuing increases in the rape of lesbians in the country. Both cases were discussed in the faces of two myths, the virgin cleansing myth, claiming that sex with a virgin can cure HIV; and the corrective rape myth, stating that sex with lesbians may cure them from their homosexuality. The feelings of dispossession caused by these myths demonstrate their worth of being reported.

The reporting of such occurrences brings the topic of rape back to peoples’ minds and encourages discussion about the cruel crimes, or in the case of the corrective rape myth, also discussions of hate crime against homosexuals. While it is good that attention is drawn to these assaults, it also leaves one questioning whether it may not be necessary to encourage a different kind of debate about rape.

The problem with this form of reporting lies in the sensationalization of these cases, making them seem extraordinary when they are just a glimpse of what is happening around the world on a daily basis. Just shortly after the incident in India, a South African 21-year-old student was gang-raped on her way to university. Many of these incidents seem far away, but countries such as the United States of America are walking alongside the often-mentioned third-world countries, with around 80,000 reported rapes in 2011. Crime statistics published for England and Wales revealed 16,000 rapes in the last year. When stating these numbers, it is important to remember that statistics barely reveal the entire magnitude of the crimes. They do, however, demonstrate that the issue of rape is not a problem of third-world countries. Yet, it feels as if rape is accepted as a normal feature of today’s society. Especially for women, who often only walk away from related debates with some form of advice on how to behave discreetly, what not to wear, where not to go – the list is long.

In fact, this was one of the first pieces of guidance that I was given during a preparation course for my South Africa stay. Similarly, it is frequent advice in any travel guide, right next to the section on how not to become the victim of a robbery. While these suggestions are obviously well meant and do not purposely intend to normalize the crime, the subliminal message appears to be that rape is a crime that is simply to be accepted. And for the worse, one that may simply be prevented, almost like a robbery. This degrades the importance of the assaults for the victims, who often suffer severe trauma including anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse.

The previously mentioned statistics call for a more profound debate about rape, focussing on the roots of the crimes and their perpetrators rather than preventive guidelines for women. Jyoti Singh’s case has encouraged such a public discussion in India, addressing problems such as the patriarchal structure of the country’s society – a feature India shares with many rural cultures in Southern Africa – and the lack of security for women. As a consequence, the debate has already sparked investigations into the criminal justice systems in India and initiated harsh criticism on the deep-rooted gender inequalities in the country.

It is important that these discussions continue, as they lead to the public acknowledgement of a crime that is often kept silent about and as one would hope, may eventually lead to changes in the treatment of women and to more powerful laws to fight the crimes. It is important to realize that rape is not a normal part of society, but a problematic crime that is not just simply prevented as a result of behavioural advice and which has its causes in many different aspects of society that need to be addressed.

Instead, society needs to become the ‘bear’ for the many victims of rape, tell their stories and through that, give them a voice. In memory of every victim, it can thus only be hoped that the uproar caused by Jyoti Singh’s death does not stop with the conviction of her five perpetrators.