Break the silence about sexual violence

2010-12-14 00:00

AN estimated 88% of rape cases go unreported in South Africa. Why is there such a crisis of silence about this shameful stain on the national conscience and what can be done to break it?

Reasons for the silence could be:

• Ignorance: the family might not realise that an incident in which, say, an uncle touches the private parts of his young niece or nephew, is sexual assault.

• Shame: the victim might want to avoid the humiliation of reporting his or her involvement in a shameful act, or the family might want to cover up that the assailant is a family member.

• Fear: the victim might be threatened with reprisal by the oppressor, they might fear that they will not be believed or they may fear that the police won’t be able to solve the case.

As few as seven percent of reported rapes result in a guilty verdict. Many survivors and their families fail to bring the rapist to justice because they don’t understand how the law regards rape. The Sexual Offences Act defines rape as any form of sexual penetration without consent, regardless of whether the victim is male or female.

Survivors should be encouraged to speak out. They need reassurance and sympathy. Advice given to pastors and their spouses during a workshop in Pietermaritzburg last month was to tell victims about gender-based or domestic violence:

• You are not alone, it is not your fault, help is available.

• You have the right to be treated fairly, in private and with dignity. You have the right to receive information that will give you the best chance of taking your case to court and getting a conviction.

• Do not wash and try to report the case within 72 hours.

The police officer that the victim reports to should take him or her to a crisis centre at the nearest hospital to be treated for trauma and injuries and be examined by a doctor.

One such crisis centre is Thuthuzela Care Centre (033 395 4325) at Edendale Hospital, situated close to Plessislaer Police Station. The centre is run by the National Prosecution Authority and offers trauma counselling, medical care and testing by qualified nurses, a full examination by a doctor and and legal services — all under one roof. A police statement is taken only right at the end of the process, when the victim feels safe and protected and their account is more rational and relevant.

Other crisis centres in greater Pietermaritzburg:

• Esther House, which runs a 24-hour safe house at an undisclosed address in Ashburton. It can put up as many as 30 abused women and their children for as long as is necessary. It can be reached at 072 563 4817. Its office at 4 West Street offers free private counselling and general information. The crisis centre across the road (033 345 5843 or 072 713 1285) can accommodate 20 people. As many as 35 women and children come through the doors of Esther House every month.

• Lifeline Pietermaritzburg, at 14 Princess Street, provides a 24/7 phone counselling and support service on its crisis line (033 342 4447). Its rape crisis centre offers survivors specialist care — trauma debriefing for victims who have been involved in violent situations such as robbery, common assault and domestic violence. It also provides HIV counselling and testing.

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