The Silent Scream: Sexual Violence and Xenophobia

“If you do not leave tomorrow you will be raped[i]

Literally translated, xenophobia is the fear of foreigners. While it is not a phenomenon unique to South Africa, the country has been under intense scrutiny both nationally, as well as internationally, as a result of the continuous attacks on foreign nationals within its borders. Although the South African government has consistently denied that the attacks are hate- or fear-inspired, but rather opportunistic crimes, it is women that continue to bear the brunt of violence.

During the 2008 xenophobic attacks that started in Alexandra and spread to the rest of the country, there were an estimated 20 000 people displaced internally. A handful of brave woman were willing to come forward and tell a story of not only being physically assaulted as they were chased from their communities, but also being subjected to rape and sexual violence. It is believed that this brutality was enacted based solely on their status of being a foreigner.

Xenophobia and sexual violence are thought of as two distinct and separate issues. Sexual assault is viewed as a crime, a domestic problem and a secret that should not be made public. In South Africa, xenophobia has the political face of exclusion or inclusion and access to resources. Yet the two overlap violently when experienced by foreign women.

It is widely acknowledged that rape is often used a tool of punishment and control. This has certainly been the case in countries experiencing conflict, where rape is often used as a weapon to humiliate, punish and afflict harm on women from different ethnic backgrounds, religions or nationalities. In part, this flows from the patriarchal belief that a woman is the property of the man who heads her household. Once she is defiled through the act of rape, she becomes unwanted and her male family members are shamed by her defilement.

Research conducted indicates that women fall prey to xenophobia and related sexual violence as they are perceived to be central to the settlement process. While men are perceived as migratory, the inclusion of women and children are indicators of a sense of permanence and settlement. This may result in the belief that the man is prospering, as he is able to bring his family to South Africa and support them in the country. It is this element of male prosperity that leads to hostility and resentment, which is played out through violent xenophobic attacks.

The intersectionality between rape and xenophobia remains unexplored in South Africa as a result of the rape of foreign women going underreported and undocumented. The lack of reporting by foreign women is not unexpected. These are women who experience some form of sexual or other violence in their countries of origin or during their flight to South Africa. They are not well-versed in the laws of the country and are often fleeing countries where little or no laws exist that seek to protect women and advance gender equality. The reception they receive from government departments, such as the refugee reception offices,  is sometimes hostile and the South African Police Service carries a public reputation for being unfriendly towards foreigners. These factors all contribute to an environment that deters foreign women from reporting crime.

In recent months there have been reports of rising violence directed at foreign nationals. As in previous attacks, the face of the crimes becomes those of the men who perpetrate them and the men who are subjected to the violence. The face and the voice of the women who suffer are absent and deafeningly silent. More must be done to allow women the peace that they were looking for when they fled their home countries. We all carry this responsibility.

By: Charlene May

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

[i] Marsh, M. 2008.  A Rapid Inter-Agency Assessment of Gender Based Violence and the Attacks on Non-Nationals in South Africa, UNICEF.


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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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