This new research will address these limitations by exploring the longer history of sexual violence in South Africa through the voices of those most affected by it: women and girls.

New study to explore the history of sexual violence in South Africa

A major new study will explore the history of sexual violence of South Africa, drawing on the voices of women.

This is the first research conducted into the history of sexual violence in the country across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, exploring women’s experiences of violence before, during, and after apartheid. The results will help experts, NGOs and policy makers better understand and respond to crimes against women.

The country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence for any country not at war, with an estimated one in three women raped in their lifetime. Efforts to create change are limited because of a lack of understanding of the history of sexual violence, and because women’s voices are often neglected in research or policy.

This new research will address these limitations by exploring the longer history of sexual violence in South Africa through the voices of those most affected by it: women and girls. It will explore how African women have conceptualised, experienced, and sought justice against the violence that shapes their day-to-day lives. By taking a historical approach and asking questions about women’s experiences of violence over time it will foster more historically and culturally specific understandings of rape in South Africa – knowledge essential for tackling the country’s current crisis in effective ways.

The historical study will utilise archival research, oral histories, and focus groups with African women from the country’s townships. These will be run in collaboration with the Khulumani Support Group – an organisation committed to helping victims of violence voice and seek support for their experiences. The project will also work with other NGOs in South Africa, including the One in Nine Campaign and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

The University of Exeter study, which begins in January, is funded through a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship for historian Dr Emily Bridger.

The way the research will be conducted – workshops organised for women to talk about their lives – will also be a model others can use to help people speak out about sexual violence by drawing on their own experiences.

Dr Bridger said: “South Africa’s constitution aims to protect women from sexual violence, but in reality women face a myriad of social pressures not to report crimes. This is a sort of secondary victimisation that makes it difficult for crimes to reach courts.

“We want to make sure women’s voices are heard, to find out more about their lives and experiences and see how these have changed over time. We want to understand women’s own conceptualisations of sexual violence, and about the strategies they have used to limit, avoid, or fight against violence.”

Dr Bridger has already conducted interviews with 11 women who were victims of apartheid-era violence in the townships of the East Rand, and hopes 100 women from across the country’s townships will eventually take part in the research.

As part of the study Dr Bridger will write a book, several journal articles, and organise two conferences on global histories of sexual violence.

Date: 23 September 2019

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