Women’s rights are human rights. But these rights are trampled on with impunity in South Africa. We struggle every single day with crimes against women and children and the scourge of rape is terrifyingly high on the list of abuses.
And this is happening despite the country having a strong Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of our democracy, which is also enshrined in the Constitution (hailed worldwide as being a very progressive one). South Africa’s statistics on abuse and rape is sky-high. It is reported that in this country someone is raped and sexually abused every 17 seconds.
According to a study undertaken by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC, June 2009), the country has one of the highest rates of rape reported to the police in the world. But as not all women report rape, the actual numbers of rapes in South Africa is much higher than numbers recorded by the police. Organisations dealing with issues of rape estimate that only between 5% - 10% of rape cases are reported and less than 10% of cases reported lead to convictions of the perpetrators.
The MRC study reported that “rape of a woman or girl had been perpetrated by 27.6% of the men interviewed and 4.6% of men had raped in the past year. Rape of a current or ex-girlfriend was disclosed by 14.3% of men. Many men had raped more than once … Nearly one in two of the men who raped (46.3%) said they had raped more than one woman or girl. In all, 23.2% of men said they had raped 2-3 women, 8.4% had raped 4-5 women, 7.1% said they had raped 6-10 and 7.7% said they had raped more than 10 women or girls.”
I spoke to Mara Glennie, who was motivated to establish the TEARS Foundation (Transform Education About Rape And Sexual Abuse) in South Africa in 2012 , after having been a victim of sexual and verbal abuse by her husband (watch Mara on eNCA television). TEARS developed a technology-based system that uses a simple SMS code and GPS location to enable rape survivors to connect with their nearest care centre immediately. Mara says: “I knew that establishing TEARS was something I had to do; a calling to ensure that victims never found themselves in the position that I had found myself in. I was a successful business woman but I left my career behind, mortgaged my house and funnelled all of my personal wealth into establishing TEARS.”
Mara speaks out against rape and sexual abuse at every opportunity she gets. And she put me into contact with three courageous women rape survivors who were prepared to talk about their ordeals and how it changed their lives. These women were not only prepared to tell me their stories but all agreed to be identified as they are not afraid to stand up for themselves and speak out.
Karmilla Pillay-Siokos (41, Johannesburg) was raped in July 1992. While at university in Durban she often partied with different groups of people (mostly guys because, according to Karmilla, not many girls drank alcohol and smoked in public in the conservative Indian community in Durban in the early 90s). One night the guy that was taking them home after a party dropped everyone off before her.
“When we were alone he parked the car in an isolated spot and got into the back seat with me. We had made out before so I was expecting just a bit of kissing before he took me home. When he started trying to take my clothes off, I said no and tried to push him off. He told me to stop playing hard to get and raped me. When he was done he said, ‘Oh my God, you really were a virgin,’ but I was so busy crying and throwing up that I didn’t say anything.”
Karmilla never reported the rape. “I was afraid that a bunch of middle-aged male police officers would not take me seriously, even if I could have felt comfortable speaking to them at all.”
She didn’t speak to anyone about it for more than five years. Then one day the words just burst out. “I screamed it out in anger while fighting with my mom. She wasn’t very supportive. She couldn’t understand the way that I had reacted to being raped. Telling my mom ruined whatever façade of a relationship there had been up to that point. We only really started communicating in later years when I was pregnant with my daughter.”
Some years after the rape, Karmilla went off to Israel to live on a kibbutz for six months. Most of the volunteers (male and female) drank, smoked and had casual sexual relationships with the locals, which they talked about openly and unashamedly. Says Karmilla: “This was a novelty for me having grown up in the incredibly repressed Indian community of apartheid South Africa.”
“On the night of my 21st birthday, I got more drunk than I have ever been before or since. At some point in the evening I surfaced from the haze to realize that I was alone with a guy in his room. There was a sudden flashback to the rape. He realized immediately that I wasn’t okay and took me straight back to my friends without touching me anymore.”
When they eventually ended up making love, “he was soft and gentle and everything that a girl wants her first time to be. In the next three months he helped me to fully appreciate my body and understand my sexuality. That was probably the first step on my healing journey.”
Coming back to South Africa, Karmilla struggled to reintegrate into her old life. “I went through a period of intense promiscuity in an attempt to recapture that feeling of pure pleasure and trust. There is however a certain feeling of power from being able to walk into a club, look around for the most attractive man and say, ‘I’ll have that one tonight. ’”
At some point during this phase Karmilla took home a guy from work. “My mom got up in the night and saw us together. The next day we had a huge screaming match, during which I blurted out, ‘What’s the point of saving it for your wedding night if any fool can take it by force. At least I choose who fucks me!’ My mom then offered to pay for therapy but made it clear that if I choose to be a slut I couldn’t do it under her roof.” Karmilla moved out.
In that blur of drunken one night stands, Karmilla was fortunate to meet a man who actually treated her like a real human being. “We talked about everything, social injustice, politics, religion, science, and conspiracy theories. Eventually I talked to him about the rape. He held me for a while and just let me cry. When I finally stopped, he said, ‘Kam, there is no excuse for what he did to you. I just want you to understand that you are an incredibly beautiful woman. Some men just don’t know how else to share in that beauty. I am sorry.’ Costa and I have now been married for nearly 17 years.”
I asked Karmilla: What was the impact of the rape on you: physically, emotionally and spiritually?
“Physically, there was very little impact. Emotionally, I became fearful and distrustful. I was always a bit cold and detached. This made me even more so. And spiritually there wasn’t much going on anyway. I lost my faith in any kind of God when my sister and my dad died. I still struggle to grasp the strength of religious faith in so many survivors. Around the time I met Costa a friend gave me a copy of the Celestine Prophecy [a 1993 novel by James Redfield that discusses various psychological and spiritual concepts]. It helped me find a spiritual framework with which I am comfortable.”
Karmilla forgave her attacker almost immediately. “I understood even then that he had been conditioned by the patriarchal society that we lived in to believe certain things about women. He had been taught that there are certain kinds of women that men can have their way with. Women who smoke and drink alcohol in public are easy. They may play hard to get but if you persist they will give in. There was nothing to forgive. He was equally a victim of the rape culture that we propagate to this day.”
What inspirational messages does she have for other abused women?
“The biggest lesson to learn is that it is never the survivor’s fault. And I guess the most inspirational part of my story is that the moment I was ready to start talking and helping people, all of the doors opened and I had the platforms available to do what needed to be done. The amount of love and support has been amazing. Finding the courage to speak is the most important step on the healing journey. Even if it is the only step you take, it will change your life. You will find the people you need to help you heal.”
The process of pregnancy and childbirth was also a huge step in Karmilla’s healing journey.”It redefined the role of sex in my life. Knowing that when people make love, regardless of whether or not there is intent to conceive, we do harness enough energy to create another human being. That’s truly powerful.
“And I recognise that all of these experiences shaped me, made me stronger as a person, a woman, a wife, a mother. I also became involved in Slutwalk, an international movement confronting the problem of victim blaming in rape and sexual abuse cases and challenging rape culture in general – it was started in Toronto in 2011 in response to a police officer telling university students that if women didn’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. I read an article about it in a newspaper, was immediately drawn to the initiative and started participating in the Johannesburg events. My daughter, who was 10 at the time, asked about what I was doing. Talking to her about rape was one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had. Her response made it all worthwhile. She immediately decided that this was something we were going to tackle together as a family. She came up with the slogan, ‘I was made with love, not force.’”
Karmilla has also written poetry and articles, and started a blog. An extract from Karmilla’s poem, I say yes (written August 2014) reads as follows:
“I say yes
I make the choice
to be more, not less
I RAISE MY VOICE.”
The rape of Rochelle Pimentel (40s, Johannesburg) occurred in May 1989, in Durban, on the beach front at 4pm in the afternoon.
“My boyfriend and I were sitting on the beach front near the pier and a guy came and asked for a light for his cigarette. I got up as I felt uncomfortable and stared walking away. As I walked away about five guys surrounded us and took out knives and held my boyfriend. I tried to scream but they closed my mouth and dragged me closer to the ocean under the pier. They stabbed my boyfriend and left him to bleed to death.
“I was stripped of my skirt and bikini top and was repeatedly raped, by each one … one biting my breasts till they bled, shoving themselves in my mouth, my vagina, all just touching and hurting me. They cut my fingers to get my rings off, cutting marks around my throat until I bled. Every few minutes my face was shoved into the water. It carried on for forever. I closed my eyes but they pushed my eyes open with the handles of their knives. They wanted me to look at them. At one point my mind could not take the trauma any longer and I tried to blank everything out.
“They got tired after forever, kicked me and walked away laughing. I was drowning but remembered my injured boyfriend. I pulled on my wet and torn clothes and ran to look for him. I found him unconscious. Him bleeding, me bleeding, blood was all I saw. And today it is always what I remember: thát was my first sexual experience – raped, sodomised, blood everywhere.
“What they did afterwards I don’t care to remember. I know that I still live with the scars; inside and outside my body. I am afraid some days of going back into my mind to that brutal attack… for what shall I find there?”
Rochelle did not report her rape as everyone was more concerned about her boyfriend as he was stabbed brutally. Everybody just assumed that the blood running down her legs were his. “I would never have been able to report my rape, simply because I could not even allow myself to believe that it had really happened.”
The impact of the rape on Rochelle was immense. She felt that people thought she was lying and just expected her to carry on with her life. She had horrendous physical wounds: her breasts needed reconstructed surgery and her womb was hurt badly. “My upper body is not a nice sight to behold.”
Emotionally she did not focus on her rape or acknowledged it. She hated who she was, what she looked like. She was constantly tired and depressed; always afraid. “I’m seeing a psychiatrist; I have an anxiety disorder. Only after all these years am I starting to deal with the physical side of the trauma that had happened to me, but my mind still cannot comprehend the vastness of the pain I endured.”
Rochelle’s strong spirituality was, and is, a key anchor in her journey towards healing. “I knew only a living God could get me through where I was – and I was in bad place, for me not even to want to remember my rape. I was not dealing with it. But it’s been a long time now, 26 years, and I have grown as a woman, a human being … I can LOVE.”
“I married the man, who was my boyfriend at the time, and we have three kids. The rape affected our relationship because I can never completely trust him to protect me. And, to me, he married me out of pity. I have a lot of relationship issues that I am dealing with still; a smell or touch can freak me out and sex is still kinda difficult.”
Has she forgiven her attackers? “Yes, I have forgiven them as my not forgiving them will keep the pain alive, I would be killing myself daily. Forgiveness is an act of love: for me, not for them.”
I asked Rochelle what inspirational messages she has for other abused women.
“No matter what happened, you never deserved to be abused, raped or hurt in any way. Take a stand immediately. Report it and speak to someone about it because the longer you leave it the greater the pain, the more intense the trauma. I have experienced what this silence brings: shame and self-hatred.
“Speak out even if your voice shakes, speak out even if you feel alone, speak out even if you feel afraid, speak out even when no one seems to care. Someone will hear.”
Rochelle is the founder of LOVE 167 For the Forgotten, an initiative that works towards assisting women and children who have been sexually abused. I asked her what the number 167 signifies and she replied: “167 is my daughter’s birthday; 16 July. I was so brutalised by the rape that I thought I could never have a baby. So, when she was born, wow! … hence the name LOVE 167.
“My cause is for the forgotten. I go into townships where people have forgotten the mother who was beaten, the daughter who was sexually molested by her dad, the uncle who raped the 12 year old girl. I go to give love, my support, to teach them skills, to let them know they are not forgotten. I speak in shacks and in the streets, to girls, boys, kids who want out of the pain and the shame of been sexually molested and boys who rape.
“I take food, and cakes and gift bags, with sanitary towels, soap, face clothes, samples and a gift. These ‘love kits’ as I call them are donated by my husband and daughter mostly and other ordinary women who hear my story and what I do and make their own kits and that’s what LOVE 167 is about: ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”
Alta McMaster (52, Johannesburg) was drugged and raped in her house in May 2000.
Her story is one of ultimate betrayal by the man she loved, her husband. “My husband was a drug addict and was bisexual with a preference for men (a fact he hid away very well during our marriage). His business was liquidated due to his drug problem. As he had no income and a drug problem, he prostituted himself to other men in order to make money to support his drug habit. One of his clients found out he was married and offered him double the amount of drugs if he could have sex with me while my husband was watching. So, I was drugged and raped in my own home.”
Alta’s initially good marriage started deteriorating during 1999 with her husband’s behaviour becoming increasingly irritated and aggressive towards her. Then he told her that his business was being liquidated. They lost their house, with Alta and her two daughters moving back in with her mom and dad, and her husband moving into a bachelor’s flat. Alta discovered a small plastic packet with white powder in his briefcase; it was cocaine.
“Then came the killer confession: for 12 years out of our 14-year marriage, he had been having sexual encounters with men.” At that time both Alta and her husband’s fathers were also diagnosed with serious illnesses and her father-in-law subsequently died. Two days thereafter car hijackers held up Alta and her two daughters at gun point in a botched car-hijacking. My father’s death followed this horrible event.
“With everything that happened over such a short space of time, I went numb. I did not feel anything. I could not cry. I could not feel sad. I felt nothing. I have never before felt so dead inside and in total despair.” Then came the next shock. Alta found her husband’s contact details in the newspaper. “The personal columns. Sexual services. Men on men. He was prostituting himself for drug money!” This was the final straw and Alta divorced her husband. But not before the horrific rape that changed her life forever.
Alta took the decision not to tell anyone about the rape. “I was so shocked at the time that my own husband did this to me that I did not report the rape. I only went to our family GP, who was very supportive, to receive medical attention.
“I was carrying my secret very deep inside, pretending it never happened.” But, subsequently, experiencing the traumatic series of events gave her a wake-up call to understand that keeping her story a secret was having a major negative impact on her life. When Alta eventually spoke out about her rape her family was devastated.
I asked Alta: What was the impact of the rape on you?“It had a very negative impact on my life. I did not trust anyone. My reactions to situations, my treatment of other people were all done in a very negative manner. It took me some time to realise what I was doing. And at one point I doubted in my faith, but God brought me back to him, and the faith in knowing that he was with me, carried me through everything.”
Have you forgiven your husband and the rapist? Alta responded: “I have made peace with what had happened to me, although it is something which I will never forget. I believe everything in life happens for a reason. Had I not gone through all of this, I would not be in a position today to reach out to other survivors through the work I do at the EPIC Foundation.” Alta’s husband eventually died of a drug overdose in early March 2001.
What inspirational messages does she have for other abused women?
“The most important thing I have learnt from these experiences is that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how hopeless you feel, there is always a way out. And you just have to believe in yourself, trust in God and believe that everything in life happens for a reason. And above all, NEVER GIVE UP! If all these events did not happen in my life I would not be the person I am today and I would not be able to take up the opportunities I have to date.”
As part of her deep passion to assist and encourage other people in crisis, Alta became involved in the management of projects for rape survivors and others in the Gauteng Province since October 2010, with the initial focus being the Comfort Pack Project. These comfort packs are distributed widely to Victim Empowerment Centres linked to police stations as well as to large rape crisis/trauma centres and now also to 37 rape trauma centres at Netcare 911 hospitals across the country. As the project expanded so quickly, she founded the EPIC (Empowering People in Crisis) Foundation in 2013 with its main objective the management of initiatives to assist victims of rape and abuse. Alta also gives motivational talks to people who have suffered abuse.
In June 2013 Alta was chosen as Primedia Broadcasting’s Lead SA Hero of the Month.
What can we do to assist rape survivors?
It is of great importance that women who have been raped and abused be encouraged to tell their stories. Not only as part of their own healing process but also so that the rest of us can learn how to assist them and for them and us to spread the word far and wide that this cancer in society must be stamped out.
Three remarkable resilient women whose bodies were violated but whose spirits are singing out through their voices spoke to me. Three strong and insistent voices that we dare not ignore. We need to listen when they and others in similar situations speak out. We should feel compelled to assist as much as we possibly can so that they do not have to go through the healing process alone. And we need to support, in any way we can, those institutions which have developed support programmes to assist rape survivors.
Mara says: “As with most non-profit organisations, TEARS tries its utmost on a continuous basis to attract sufficient funds to enable us to do our work. It becomes highly distressing when a real fear of closing our doors exists, but it’s the understanding that TEARS is helping address the plight of every person affected by rape or abuse regardless of race, gender, culture or creed that fuels the motivation and passion to do our best in every circumstance.
“Knowing that we are change agents who are actively involved in activities from advocacy, to prevention, to interventions, goes a long way in reinforcing the passion for TEARS. It’s about all of us.”
Image via thenation.com/blog/172299/no-justice-college-rape-victims