When the #RUReferenceList was first published last week Sunday, April 17th, it resulted in mass demonstrations at Rhodes University, which called into question the efficacy of the policies and structures in place to handle cases of sexual assault. While many students expressed support for survivors of sexual violence, there were still some reservations regarding the means used. I, myself, was very conflicted about making a list of alleged rapists publicly available.
My main reservation regarding the list is that there is no way to verify the accusations. The anonymity that The List provides, allows the accuser to remain anonymous, something they are well within their rights to do. However, with this anonymity, the concern that I, and other students, shared was the possibility of a student making a false accusation in a public space.
Given this concern, I decided to look into the frequency of false rape accusations in South Africa. According to the Tracking Justice study, 3.3% of reported rapes may have been false. When you put that in perspective with the fact that only 1 in 9 women report rape, according to the South African Medical Research Council, the number of false reports of rape in South Africa is equivalent to 0.4% of all rapes in the country. (Disclaimer: These studies provide the best data available on false reports of rape. The statistics are based on studies and data from over three years ago and the study is currently being conducted on a national level to update the statistics).
After having a look at the numbers, it was clear to me that false accusations are not as big of a concern as unreported rape cases. I’m not sure why my first assumtpion was that women would abuse their ability to name their alleged rapist – perhaps it stems, at least partially, from how false rape accusations have been portrayed in the television shows I watch. But once I thought about it, I realised that there was no logical explanation for a women to falsely accuse someone of something as serious as rape.
Underreporting is already a huge issue when it comes to rape cases and women are worried that they won’t be taken seriously or will need to provide a justification for why they are pressing charges. In an environment that already shrouds your case in doubt and looks for any reason to excuse the rapist for their behaviour, is it any wonder that students resorted to posting a list of names online?
Rather than focusing on our own personal feelings towards making names of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence known, we need to examine the reason why students felt that they had no option other than to publicly name their alleged rapist. We need to assess why it has reached a point where students are having to go outside of the structures in place when it comes to issues of sexual violence.
The mistrust of university students in the internal structures and systems in place to address their cases is not unique to Rhodes. Here, at UCT, there have also been complaints about the way in which DISCHO has handled cases of sexual assault and harassment. The recent review published showed that 45% of students were not confident in DISCHO’s ability to handle cases of rape. If students cannot rely on the structures put in place to deliver justice, then perhaps it is time to reassess those structures.
If students who have gone through proper channels only to be dismissed or to have their complaints filed away, but never addressed, then I can understand wanting to use alternative channels. Students who have done everything according to the policies and laws and regulations, yet still have to see their rapist on campus, deserve the chance to get the truth out there. If a student has experienced sexual violence on campus and the perpetrator is a student who is still on campus, then other students have the right to know.
In a society and environment that allows rapists to continue living their life with no consequences, where survivors of sexual assault have to potentially confront the trauma of seeing their rapist every day, that condemns publicly naming the person who rapes you, but does not condemn rape, perhaps your only choice is to find alternative channels. If the current system in place fosters mistrust then the system is failing us. When a system fails, then you need to start from scratch and find one that works.