By definition, rape culture is an environment in which rape is not only pervasive but also normalised (or trivialised) because of societal attitudes about gender and s3xuality.
Although the term was generated recently, it reflects on an already existing custom that dates back to medieval times. Numerous ancient Greek and Roman mythologies talk of and even romanticise coupling that is forced and violent.
In Ancient Europe, stories abound of women put to death for being raped, compounding the aspect of victim blaming which forms an essential part of rape culture.
As a largely patriarchal society, Africa has customs and traditions, since time immemorial, that have tolerated and promoted rape culture regardless of the community behind these cultures.
One such ritual is the marriage ritual called Ukuthwala in the Nguni community in South Africa. In this ritual, a young man of marriageable age would kidnap a girl or a young woman with the intention of compelling her family to approve the marriage and start negotiations.
Such a ritual is also practised in communities in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. These communities have banned the ‘bridegrooms’ from having s3xual intercourse with the kidnapped ‘brides’ but the ban is not always observed.
In many cases, the women are raped as a way of forcing the hand of the bride and the family into accepting the marriage.
In other communities, female rape survivors are considered adulterers and punished in various ways including marrying their rapist or even put to death. In Somaliland, a rape survivor would be forced to marry their rapist to avoid bringing shame and stigma to the family.
This, however, changed in 2018 when the country passed a historic law that would see perpetrators spend at least 20 years in prison for such a crime. It also institutes punishment for anyone who fails to report such crimes.
In a recent report by the Human Rights Watch, the entrenched rape culture in Mauritania was highlighted. In the report, women and girls told of how they were subjected to s3xual assault and how many obstacles they had to face in their quest for justice.
Many of the women in the report have had to be courageous enough to speak out against s3xual violence because of the shame, stigma and lack of justice.
One of the women, Rouhiya (not her real name), speaks of her escape from her s3xually abusive father, only to end up with a s3xually abusive lover who had promised to marry her.
However, instead of arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators, they arrested Rouhiya.
Soon after, she said, the man locked her up, drugged her, and gang-raped her with three other men. Rouhiya remained captive for two weeks until the police found her and returned her to the home from which she had tried to escape.
In her report to the police, Rouhiya disclosed that she knew one of the perpetrators. Police arrested her and sent her to the national women’s prison on charges of engaging in s3xual relations outside marriage (zina). “I asked them, ‘Why? What did I do?’,” Rouhiya said. “They told me to keep quiet and not to ask questions.”
Recently, South Africa lost a student because of rape culture, compounding cases in a country considered the ‘rape central’ of Africa.
There have been protests across the country and at different times in history to protest gender-based violence including rape and s3xual assault.
In Egypt, rape is treated so casually that a renown lawyer called for women to be raped as a matter of ‘national duty’ on national TV. It took the outrage of women movements in the country and worldwide censure for the lawyer to apologise.
This says a lot in a country deemed one of the most dangerous for women in the world.
Not many African countries have laws against s3xual assault, and if they do, the prosecutions are often few and far in between. As per the HRW report, Mauritania does not define nor criminalise rape in its laws.
Additionally, the burden to prove that s3x was nonconsensual rests on the survivor, failure to which women can be turned into the accused.
Aside from the lack of laws, not so many institutions are sensitised in dealing with rape cases. From healthcare service providers to police officers, there are still gaps to fill to ensure that s3xual assault survivors not only get the right medical care but also access justice.
It is also not uncommon to find perpetrators receiving no jail term even with evidence and a history of s3xual assault. With such incidences, it is no wonder that many African countries are prosecuting some of their first s3xual assault cases in the 2010s.
In some cases, rape cases are withdrawn due to threats to the victims or resolution by parents and the perpetrator, without the victim’s knowledge.
In Kenya, the fear of reporting rape cases has been countered by the use of SMSes and hotlines, including the SMS platform run by Wangu Kanja Foundation, a charity for rape survivors.
The platform provides a way for rape survivors to not only report cases but also access legal and medical help.
Other traditions prevalent in Africa such a female genital mutilation and child marriages have been linked to domestic violence, including rape and s3xual assaults.
In Africa, the age of consent ranges between 12 and 18, yet even in the countries with 18 as the age of consent, child marriages still take place.
The case of the 13-year old Kenyan girl who was beaten to death for refusing to marry a 60-year-old man comes to mind. The incident happened in the country where child marriages have been banned and advocacy surrounding terrible consequences of child marriages have been ongoing for ages.
Once married, these underage girls are s3xually assaulted and since not many countries have laws against spousal and marital rape, nothing is really done to save these girls.