The "in-between" space adolescent girls have in South African society places them in a uniquely vulnerable position. Possessing neither the innocent appeal of children nor the life experience of adults, they frequently fall between the cracks in the criminal justice system. As a result their experiences of sexual violence are denied and down-played.
Training by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's gender unit with members of the SAPS and prosecutors highlights this dismissal of teenage girls. A widespread perception exists that the majority of teenage girls who report rape are lying to cover up their sexual activity from their parents, or the need to explain an all-night absence.
In practice this perception leads police officers to treat young women with suspicion and to put little effort into investigations. For their part, prosecutors will often call young women in for pre-trial consultations to find out what "really" happened.
If, during these consultations, young women confirm that the alleged rapist is a boyfriend or former sex partner – or even say they have lied – this is immediately taken as proof of the rightness of such suspicious treatment.
However, if we rethink our conceptions of domestic violence, and apply understandings of the psychological impact of domestic violence to teenage girls, then a very different interpretation could be placed on this behaviour.
Typically domestic violence has been thought about only in terms of adults in long-term relationships. Research indicates how wrong this assumption is. Gauteng-based research into men's killing of their intimate female partners found that almost 20 percent of women in the study were 20 or younger at the time of their deaths, with the youngest victim being 14 years old.
Other studies find a high degree of sexual coercion in many teenage girls' dating relationships. Young women continue to comply with male demands, partly out of the belief that "everybody does it", and fear of losing their partner's company. The latter reason is very similar to why abused women withdraw charges against their abusive partners.
Like their adult counterparts, young men may also place considerable pressure on their partners to withdraw charges, threatening further violence or an end to the relationship.
If there is no broader societal recognition of violence in adolescent dating relationships, it is unlikely that teenage girls will understand what is happening to them as a form of domestic violence, or even the dating equivalent of marital rape. But even when young women do name these experiences as rape, it seems most adults respond by denying it.
Again, this has much in common with the experience of adult women in abusive relationships who can testify eloquently of police and prosecutor attempts to dissuade them from going ahead with cases. Small wonder then, in the face of such scepticism, that young women withdraw their complaints or say they have lied. This option may be considerably easier than proceeding with charges through a system that is disbelieving and unsupportive.
We have started to recognise the appalling violence that young children and adult women experience in their families and their relationships. Now we need to start naming and recognising the violence young women experience in their dating relationships. By not doing so, we silence young women while giving young men a silent nod of support for their behaviour.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 30 July 2000.