I live in one of the most rape-infested countries in the world. Fear is a normal part of my days, but the last few have been redemptive, too. There was the man who harassed me on an abandoned street yesterday … the drunk who threatened to throw a bottle at me this morning … the one who made a beeline towards me outside the shopping mall on Friday… Every one of them scared me because in some parts of my country, more than half of men reported having raped someone at least once.
Here, murder is so integral to ordinary life that newspapers rarely report it. The only time it makes it into the news is when the victim is foreign. We in South Africa value your British life, your American life, your anything-but-here life.
There’s an art to staying safe without letting the criminal landscape ruin your days; there’s an art to picking and choosing your fear so that the wall you’ve built doesn’t shut everyone out. Nobody gets caution right every time.
I’ve learned how to spot suspicious body language, walk in a way that doesn’t scream ‘victim’, and arrange my schedule for safety. I’ve learned, in short, how to stay alive. The men in my country haven’t yet learned how to contribute, though. They ask what they can do, but answers are hard to come by.
Men still can’t understand why we fear them, even with our horrific statistics. Of course, they genuinely feel concerned for us and say they understand, but they also take offense when we’re politely cautious. My boundaries are often greeted with anger by local men, who really should know better. A changed attitude would contribute in a small way to rape prevention. Sure, you would never resort to violence, but as a collective, your aggressive response to our caution teaches us that next time, we’d better be polite instead of safe.
The real problem is that women are brought up to be nice. What “nice” actually means is a matter of opinion, and I often feel unsure of how much politeness I need to put ahead of my own safety. And before you question it, yes, our politeness does put us at risk. Ask anyone who saw the red flags before their rape how that rapist got a foothold. Niceness is almost always a reason they didn’t get away in time. Women put their safety behind your comfort every day of the week.
Is the violence your fault? No. Could you help? If you wanted to. Is it your responsibility? No, but it would be an excellent way to contribute towards making this burden lighter.
Back to the redemption in my first paragraph, though. In each of those three situations that scared me, men I’d never met went out of their way to make sure I was safe. Spotting a stranger’s fear takes compassion. Being that observant takes empathy.
Last week, I had no answer for the men who were asking what they could do to help. Now, I have a one-word answer: awareness. If you were alert to the risks and fear of those around you, it would make the world a softer place. It might even keep someone safe from harm.