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“Rape is not about sex. Rape is about power.”

I quickly tapped this quote from an office coworker into a note on my phone, where it joined a haphazard and fairly random collection of other quotes and facts I had recorded over the past week. “11 official languages in South Africa.” “10 years of corruption with Jacob Zuma still impact SA’s ability to make change, no money for federal programs.” “Special courts for rape victims can minimize secondary trauma.” “Townships created during Apartheid for racial segregation, still growing.”

I was finishing up the first week of my independent DukeEngage project with Rape Crisis, a nonprofit organization based in Cape Town, South Africa. Over the course of the week, I had filled this document with countless lines of notes, born in hurried attempts to better understand the organization and its broader context within South Africa. Rape Crisis provides support to victims of sexual assault in Cape Town and surrounding areas, including medical care, counseling, and support through the criminal justice system. At Rape Crisis, I am working to develop a mobile iOS application to connect sexual assault survivors in Cape Town with the organization’s services. It is essentially an anonymous, emergency chat helpline for those who may not have access to a private computer, or who can’t find transportation to one of our office locations.

demonstration in Cape Town organized by Rape Crisis
A public march in Cape Town organized by Rape Crisis. Protesters hope to raise awareness about the need for special sexual offense courts.

I had arrived in Cape Town very eager to begin this project. I’d been discussing the idea with staff at Rape Crisis for months, and felt confident in my understanding of sexual violence in the world, as well as the needs and priorities of the organization. I’d been involved in the conversation surrounding sexual violence in the US and on university campuses, and thought myself to be fairly well-versed on the issue. How hard could it be to apply my existing knowledge in the context of South Africa? I was itching to get to work. But, in classic idealistic-American-student-abroad fashion, I’d been naive, vastly underestimating the complexity and intersectionality of the issues here in Cape Town.

Quickly, I learned that it is impossible to discuss sexual violence in South Africa without first understanding the complicated legacy of apartheid, the history of disempowered and disenfranchised groups, systemic poverty, gang violence, government and police corruption, or the stigma and myths surrounding rape in local communities. All of these complexities, and many more, influence the manifestation of sexual violence in South Africa, as well as a nonprofit organization’s approach to the issues.

For example, South African government police during apartheid often resorted to violent tactics as a tool for controlling and intimidating the non-white population, including violence against women. This violence has led to a lasting distrust of police in the country, making some victims of sexual assault reluctant to report it to authorities. Rape Crisis must consider this complex, historical relationship between non-white populations and the police when assisting victims with the legal reporting process. Another complicating factor can be found in the prevalence of violent gang activity throughout Cape Town. These gangs wield considerable power in some communities, and if a survivor has been assaulted by members of a gang, it is likely that he or she may feel an increased pressure to stay quiet about the experience. Survivors of such incidents are often frightened to reveal their identity or to be seen entering our office for counseling services. Rape Crisis must consider the influence of gangs in local communities when offering services to these individuals.

Nuances such as these affect the approach that Rape Crisis must take if they hope to provide the best possible care to survivors of rape in Cape Town. And because I had no understanding of the complex reasoning behind the structure of the organization and its services, how could I expect to successfully introduce a brand new, mobile helpline service into the community? I was forced to reconsider details of my project as basic as the language settings for the mobile app: I had only planned to offer the technology in English, before learning of South Africa’s whopping 11 official languages.

Ultimately, many of my original plans for the mobile app were rendered useless. But I didn’t mind. My first week with Rape Crisis was a humbling reminder that every social issue is infinitely more complex than it may appear at surface-level. I was also reminded of the importance of staying humble about my understanding of any given topic. Issues that affect communities worldwide, like sexual violence, are always further complicated by the unique history, culture, and people of a place. Addressing sexual violence in South Africa inevitably requires a different approach than addressing sexual violence in the US. I hope to keep these complexities in mind throughout my remaining weeks in Cape Town, as I continue to fill my notes app with more attempts at better understanding this beautiful country.