Why you should take the bathroom stall posters seriously

Heather O'Keeffe

One of my first purchases on South African soil was a radio. Lying in my hot, stuffy room waiting for the sluggish internet to load, I enjoyed its mix of local and American music. Almost every ad break, an anti-rape campaign commercial came on. These ads were fascinating in their approach to reach a young audience and really drove home the countless safety talks I had thus far endured.

One statistic blew me away: One in three South African women are raped during their lifetime. I can’t even imagine.

One in three.

That’s huge. Massive. For every ten women I see doing groceries, possibly 30 percent of them have endured the unimaginable.

Such an astonishing statistic makes Case Western Reserve University’s bathroom sexual conduct safety posters initially seem even more comical and certainly pointless. How can a few bullet points with Oprah quotes save you from one of the one in three?

But it turns out CWRU’s safety tips are not far from what I’ve heard from Cape Town locals, study abroad advisors at the University of Cape Town, and semester abroad alumni. The bathroom posters, emblazoned with 216-368-3333, were onto something more than just pierogies.

Alcohol is a common thread amongst the CWRU posters and alcohol consumption has been a topic of every safety talk I have received in Cape Town. Simply watching your drink is a huge tip here, as well as anywhere in the world. As one study abroad advisor at UCT informed us, drink-spiking rings are common in clubs. This advisor plainly told my orientation group that the last thing he wanted was another young girl crying on his shoulder without a memory of the last 24 hours.

Keeping track of your consumption and a degree of your wits about you does not apply only to women. Our advisors told of us young American men who got into bar fights and spent the weekend in South African prisons, where rates of rape and HIV infection soar.

It’s stories like these that really shake some sense into you. These aren’t just SVU episodes, but real stories happening to just under 27 women per day in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

A word that keeps being mentioned during these safety talks is vigilance. It’s such an appropriate word. You always have to be vigilant about your purse, your friends, yourself and your surroundings.

The biggest safety adjustment I am getting used to occurs after the sun sets. Forms of public transportation are no longer safe after business hours and walking alone at night is a huge no-no. That means always calling a reliable cab service and being wary of the suspicious, independent drivers who slap “cab” on the side of their car door. Fortunately, cab rides are really cheap here and I have already found two excellent drivers who work 24-hour-shifts and insist on picking my friends and me up at any time.

I thought I was an independent college student at CWRU, taking a greenie on my own and walking through campus at night. Here, while there is much I cannot do alone and it feels as if my independence has been taken, self-sufficiency and reliance have never been so important. Just as at CWRU, it is up to me to make good decisions that do me the most good.

So while the CWRU posters on every stall door are the most common of inside jokes amongst students, their message is useful, even thousands of miles away. And if you ever disregard the posters, just think: one in three. Rape in South Africa is not a faceless issue, because women of every race and class are victims.

To read more on rape in South Africa and specifically Cape Town, visit rapecrisis.org.za.

Heather O’Keeffe is a second-year biomedical engineering student studying in Cape Town for 2014. She wishes to volunteer in a township while abroad to gain a better foothold of understanding and hopefully help, in some small way, catalyze a positive change.