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Keeping it in their pants: Politicians, men and sexual assault in South Africa
Charlene Smith
March 17, 2005

This speech was read at the Harold Wolpe Lecture, University of KwaZulu Natal

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Extract from speech:
In October 2004, President Thabo Mbeki lambasted those who write about sexual assault. He criticised UNAIDS deputy executive director, Kathleen Cravero, for saying: "Most of the women and girls… in Asia (and) in Africa, don't have the option to abstain (from sex) when they want to. Women who are victims of violence are in no position to negotiate anything, never mind faithfulness and condom use." Mbeki wrote: "Clearly, the views (are)… that African (and Asian) men… are violent sexual predators."

This was followed by an angry exchange in parliament where he falsely accused me of writing that black men are: "rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants." In his Friday letter he admitted that the real author was "African American Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Dr Edward Rhymes."

Mbeki's approach is not dissimilar to the late Steve Tshwete and Penuell Maduna telling a CBS 60 Minutes TV crew a few years ago: "They say that there is a rape every 26 seconds in SA, but we've been standing here for more than 26 seconds and I haven't seen anyone raped, have you…?"

When the most powerful men in the nation show such a lack of concern for women and when, as in the instance of Mbeki, they spring to the defence of abusive men and rapists, then how are we ever going to get violent crime, especially that directed against women, and HIV under control?

According to UNAIDS in 2003, two thirds more young women are HIV infected here than their male peers. UNAIDS, WHO, Amnesty International and Unicef point to the high rates of sexual assault in this country and the difficulty women have in negotiating safe sex.

In his talk at McCord hospital yesterday pioneering HIV clinician, Paul Farmer spoke of how "gender inequality" bedevils the capacity of "young girls to be faithful or abstain. We have to be respectful," he said, "of how poverty robs young people of choices."

Not just poverty; violence robs women of choices.

I will speak later of how poverty fuels violence and although politicians speak from public platforms about two economies, they remain firmly rooted in the first economy as they whisk past the poor in siren blaring cavalcades.

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