When my elder daughter, now 17, decided in Grade 6 that she wanted to attend a school social, we had to have a long talk.
She was just 11, but I had to teach her not to accept drinks that weren’t sealed, not to leave an open drink unattended, not to hand out her phone number to anyone she didn’t know. I had to teach her not to go off alone to the bathroom or into dark corners with a boy. That it’s best to dress modestly. That there’s safety in numbers. That you look out for your girlfriends.
And when she asked why, I had to tell her the brutal details behind this statement: if you’re a girl, the world automatically becomes more dangerous.
And when her sister, now 14, reached the same age, we had to have the very same chat. And each time it broke my heart. Because that’s the world we live in. That’s the reality you face if you are the parent of a girl child.
On Saturday night four young women stood up as our president prepared to address the country and the world’s media. In silence, and armed with the simplest of tools – cardboard and a pen – they brought home again the reality of what it means to be female in South Africa. Always a target, always afraid, always protecting yourself against the very real possibility that you might become a rape statistic, one of the one-in-three women who will be raped in their lifetime. One of three.
To raise daughters is to worry constantly – because nowhere is safe. They’re not safe at school – just read the news to see how many teachers are sexual predators in South Africa. I know someone who was raped by a Sunday School teacher; another who narrowly escaped being raped by a policeman, lesbians who’ve been subjected to ‘corrective rape’ – and those are just the few I can think of offhand. And as far as I’m aware, most people who are raped aren’t attacked by some vague bogeyman threat out here – they are raped by people they know; sometimes by family members.
Some might call me ridiculous for teaching my girls about spiked drinks and safety in numbers at age 11. I disagree. For the same reason I taught them at age three or four that no-one was allowed to touch their genitals except for them, I taught them early how to protect themselves from rape. Because the younger you are, the more vulnerable you are. And I’ll say it again: if you’re a girl, the world automatically becomes more dangerous.
It incenses me that I have to do this with my girls; that I have to remind them from time to time in case they’ve become blasé. The injustice of it all drives them up the wall – because they can tell from the conversations that they have with their male friends that boys are not subjected to this kind of talk at all – at least not in a way to protect them from sexual aggression.
And that’s where the real solution to rape culture lies. It doesn’t lie in telling girls how to protect themselves. No, the solution lies with boys and men – in the way we raise them; in the way they behave. Because not all men are rapists, certainly, but when one in three women is raped in her lifetime, there’s more than just a handful of men perpetrating these acts of violence against women. And there are probably a few in your social circle.
The reality is, that no matter how much you think girls shouldn’t have to do any of the things I’ve mentioned above, the fact is that they do. Every single day. Because it might just save their lives. So the parents of boys need to be as overt in telling their children about how to prevent rape as we parents of girls are.
You’d better be telling them that it’s not okay to force a girl or a woman to do anything against her will. You’d better be telling them that when a girl says no, that’s the end of it. No pushing, no insisting, no trying to persuade her. No means no. That if you see your friend behaving like that, you need to call him on his behaviour. And that you need to look out for your female friends too.
And men, it doesn’t stop there . Because ultimately, children learn a lot more from watching you than they do from what you say. Those jokes you make about the difficult woman in your office where you suggest that all she needs is a good pomp — they’re not helping. And this is not about being politically correct – it’s about being a decent human being. (Watched Grease lately? How’s that line in Summer Loving: “Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight/ Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”) Don’t tell me rape-culture isn’t everywhere.
I’m lucky enough not to be one of the one-in-three women who has been raped, but I’ve been groped and felt up, and touched by strangers more times than I can count, and that’s bad enough. My daughter’s had her backside pinched by a complete stranger while on an escalator at a shopping mall.
The bottom line is this: women don’t need to take more precautions; you just need to stop that crap. You need to stop it yourself, call your friends on it, and send a strong message to your sons that it’s not okay. Ever.
Sure, we can lock up all the rapists. (Haha – read up the conviction statistics sometime and see how that’s working out.) But that’s just addressing the symptoms, not the cause.
Check yourself, check your sons, and raise them right. That’s how we’ll stamp out rape.