At the coalface of SA’s rape crisis

2011-12-09 00:00

ONE in three woman in South Africa will become a rape statistic and one in 10 men has probably been raped. These chilling statistics are a sombre reminder, as the 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Children campaign ends, that the problem of sexual violence in this country is huge.

Outgoing director of Lifeline and Rape Crisis in Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas, Debbie Harrison says the rape epidemic is a symptom of civil unrest and that most countries that go through social upheaval experience sexual violence, although it is never acceptable. She believes that men need to change the way they see violence as a solution to resolving conflict in relationships.

A positive sign for her was a recent intake of volunteers on the Lifeline course where there were more men than women applying to be on the course. “I believe we are seeing a new generation of caring men, so perhaps the wheel is turning.”

Rape Crisis Pietermaritzburg, which works under the Lifeline umbrella, tries to ensure that help is at hand for those women who become statistics. They have volunteers who do shifts at the main hospitals waiting to help women in need. Harrison says that many local government hospitals have become more sensitive to the rape victim’s situation.

“It depends on the staff who are on duty. If there are new staffers on duty they may not be aware of all the things that need to be done and how the procedures work. This is why we like our own Rape Crisis volunteers to be there if possible or to be called in, because they know exactly what procedures should be followed.”

Harrison says that initially rape victims are too shocked to react with logic, many are emotionally numb. They need to be helped with kindness and their medical needs come first. The priority is to collect any physical evidence that may help the police convict the rapist or rapists. This is done by the district surgeon who is trained to do this.

“He will write a report detailing physical injuries and also note other relevant facts. The next step is for the police to write a report about the attack and open a case.”

Harrison says that sometimes there are detectives who are specially trained to deal with sexual abuse cases, but not always. The police have come under pressure to be more sensitive when dealing with sexual crimes.

The next step is for the rape victim to be given a number of medical treatments. Harrison stresses that rape victims are given these medicines free.

“They are given medicine to prevent unwanted pregnancy, they are given antiretroviral treatment (ART) to prevent HIV infection and they are given antibiotics to prevent any infections like sexually transmitted diseases and are given pain and nausea meds.

“Most rape victims ultimately become rape survivors, but it is a tough journey and requires mental strength and a lot of love and support. We counsel rape survivors that no one can take away who you are on the inside.”

Harrison is a cheerful person who is determined to offer her clients the best service they can get. “I do have my sad days when I have heard a very bad case and it gets to me, but mostly I feel encouraged that we make an enormous difference to people. We play a huge role in helping people get back on their feet when they have been knocked down.”

The Rape Crisis branch covers an enormous area from Kokstad to Greytown and it tries to be available all the time. The staff offer counselling, rape-care packs and they also offer to accompany clients to court when they are required to testify and to the hospital for follow-up visits.

“We had one young girl who was raped and the police caught the perpetrator, but he was released on bail,” said Harrison. “While out on bail he raped her again. We counselled her and when the case went to trial the perpetrator’s defence attorney tried to tear her to pieces. But with our help she was mentally prepared for him. She was brave and calm and just stuck to her testimony.

“This girl feels vindicated now that her rapist is behind bars and we feel glad that we could help her. But we know not all cases go smoothly. In some cases, rape victims won’t press charges, as they feel ashamed and think that their parents will blame them.”

Harrison says they always give rape victims the choice to press charges, and they also tell those who do that they should not pin all their hopes on a conviction as rape charges are notoriously difficult to prove.

Physical evidence is often lost and the courts are still not as efficient as they should be when processing these cases. Lifeline also gives lessons to teenage girls on how to avoid becoming a rape victim. These basic lessons may seem obvious, but they could save you from a traumatic and life-changing experience.

The number of rape cases on males has risen dramatically in recent years and Harrison says that these cases also have to be dealt with sensitively. “We usually give rape packs to women with some toiletries and underwear and information, so they can wash and change after the medical examination.

“We had one guy who had been raped. He had no clothes and we gave him a dress to cover himself up with and he was so grateful.

“We now have drawstring pants and T-shirts for the men who are raped. In some ways they suffer in a different way because they have few people to talk to about their experience and the physical damage can be very traumatic.”

Lifeline also has community volunteers doing education workshops in their communities about gender-based violence. They raise issues in the community that need to be resolved.

In one instance a major issue was access to contraceptives for schoolgirls who could not get to the clinic in school hours. They managed to negotiate access for the girls.

Lifeline counsellors try to get rape survivors to examine their beliefs and to face their troubles. As problems are resolved one by one, the survivor can feel that life does not revolve around that one traumatic incident.

“Our mission is to get rape survivors to the point where they can see that life does go on,” said Harrison.


• For counselling and advice contact Lifeline at any time of the day or night at 033 394 4444.

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