As I entered the awaiting trial juvenile section of the prison where I was contracted to monitor Human rights of inmates, a warder asked me to speak to a young man who had been sexually assaulted by gang members. When I began my 3-year contract, the Juvenile section was housing about 55 inmates, aged between 18 and 21, in four communal cells. About a year later, Malmesbury Prison’s juvenile section closed and all the inmates were sent to Paarl, which now housed up to 140 inmates in 3 communal cells – the 4th had been converted into a court room, where bail applications could be heard, to ease the pressure on the local court. It was a nightmare.
Thabo (not his real name) sat down next to me on the bench in the tiny concrete area which was used for exercise. He was small, soft-spoken, with an air of naivety and looked at most, about 14. He was in fact 17 and by rights, should have been housed apart from the 18 to 21-year-old juveniles, but overcrowding was given as the reason this didn’t happen. It was his first time in prison.
We talked about what had happened; I checked that he had been attended to medically and informed him of his rights to lay a charge. Legalities out of the way, I focused on how he was feeling emotionally and mentally. Although forthcoming, he appeared resigned to whatever life dealt him, and at that point, I asked why he was there. My heart sank when he told me he was charged with raping a 7-year-old little girl on the farm where he grew up. As we talked about the effect violation has on a person for the rest of their life, his understanding and gentle demeanor made me ask if he was abused as a child. He explained that his single mom had to work, so from a very young age, his uncle watched him during the day. He could recall that from about the age of 4, friends of his uncle would hang out to drink and regularly assaulted him sexually. It only stopped when he was about 12 and could take care of himself. Alcohol and sex, consensual or otherwise, was part of farm life – he didn’t know it was abuse or could be reported. Being conditioned to ‘play’ in this manner, led him to overstepping the boundaries while playing with the little girl on the farm.
We spoke for a long time about the effect of his actions on his victim and the effect of his upbringing on his own view of the world. He told me it was the first time in his life he was able to talk to someone about his experience and through his tears, expressed deep remorse at believing sex was just an acceptable part of playing.
Circumstances are no excuse for his crime, yet my heart ached. Where were we, society, when this young boy was being abused? If that boy-child had been protected, he would not have perpetrated the same abuse on the little girl, would not have ended up in prison and I would not be dealing with this sexual assault.
My contract ended a couple of months later, so I don’t know what happened to Thabo. But I do know that we have to break the cycle of abuse. We need adult men, role-models, to tell our boys that violence and abuse against males, whether they be children or adults, is also unacceptable. Only then will we begin to address the cause of violence against women and children. So long as men are excluded from the slogan, “No Violence Against Women and Children”, the cycle will continue.