[intro]The recently released crime statistics in South Africa are another reminder how the experience of violence shapes the lives of many women in our society. With 110 rape cases a day, the figures of sexual violence remain shockingly high and very often those wanting to intervene only perpetuate the problem of victim blaming.[/intro]

Earlier this month police released crime statistics from the period April 2016 to December 2016. It was reported that sexual offences decreased by more than 2,500 cases and rape decreased in all provinces with the Northern Cape reporting the highest decrease of 14%. But gender activists have responded with anger stating that the decrease only points to fewer women reporting sexual offences and the deterioration of faith in the justice system.

It is difficult to find realistic evidence to celebrate any progress in the fight against sexual violence. However, there are numerous initiatives that are crucial in this fight.

Supporting survivors in their process of healing is demanding work and individuals working in this field deserve all our respect. However, such interventions also raise an important question:

What can be done to prevent sexual violence?

The idea of prevention is to address problems before they occur and consequently, preventing sexual violence means to address its causal factors before it even happens. However, it is incredibly difficult to identify the root causes of sexual violence and even psychologists struggle to come up with a satisfying explanation.

In an attempt to prevent any act of sexual violence, it would seem reasonable to address the (potential) perpetrators. But interestingly, many interventions or campaigns in this field focus on addressing potential victims instead. This could be due to the idea that any attempt to change perpetrators will be in vain. But when questioned, how any intervention aiming to change a potential victim will prevent sexual violence, many organisations struggle to provide logical reasons.

The idea that empowering girls and women can protect them is linked to the argument that certain characteristics of individuals increase their chances of becoming victimised, such as a low self-esteem or signs of depression. Essentially, such interventions are based on the assumption that individuals could do something to protect themselves from becoming victimised and somehow contributed to this experience.

What effect does this message have on girls and women as well as the broader society?

If we assume that focusing on changing the behaviour of victims can prevent sexual violence we essentially say that the victim could have done something to stop this horrible experience. This notion perpetuates the stereotype that victims share the responsibility for their experience. Consequently, prevention campaigns that focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator contribute to the process of blaming the victim. It is no secret that many victims feel guilty and ashamed after being violated and any suggestion that they did something wrong to become victimised aggravates this feeling.

It stigmatises individuals and silences victims.

The actual incidence of sexual violence far exceeds official statistics. And it should not surprise us that many individuals who were victimised choose not to speak about their experience, let alone open a case. This trend will continue as long as victims of abuse are still questioned how their behaviour has led up to their experience of sexual violence.

In my research, I evaluated an empowerment programme for women and girls in a systemically disadvantaged residential area close to Johannesburg, South Africa. The programme aims to prevent sexual violence by addressing only female high-school learners. The psychologist who developed the programme told me that every girl they work with will be ‘one less victim’.

Like many interventions, this programme makes use of the problematic notion that potential victims should change, rather than the perpetrators. And it perpetuates the process of blaming the victims of sexual violence. Consequently, such interventions send out the subtle yet incredibly dangerous message to the rest of society that victims are also at fault or share the blame. But talking to the women who participate in the programme made me realise how they suffer from feelings of self-blame that the programme instilled in them and two women shared their views:

“…they always state that ‘women allow it to happen’ but they don’t allow it. They somehow suggest that you brought this thing on yourself but nobody wishes for that. It suggests that women are weak and it made me feel small. You don’t bring that upon yourself.”

“I feel they see us as weak people. We need solutions no victim movement. That creates a norm that it is actually our fault and it creates a norm that women could have done something to prevent this or see what has happened”

These quotes highlight how good and noble intentions can be dangerous and cause actual harm. They remind us that we need to think deeply and carefully about our work in the field of combating sexual violence and every step we take to prevent it. They should not discourage us from being engaged but it is important to change the structure we live in to prevent sexual violence. All of us have a responsibility and can contribute to create safer communities and show more civil courage to reduce acts of sexual violence.

Main image: Students at Rhodes University protest against rape culture at the institution in 2016. Image courtesy of Kate Van Rensburg