Rape remains under-reported nationally but there may be no rapes more hidden than those committed within families.
For 14-year-old Free State teen Thato*, being raped by her uncle was a traumatic experience, only made easier because she got the full support of her grandmother, who takes care of Thato and her brothers.
He told me to undress
“One day after school, I came home and my grandmother was not feeling well,” said the self-described “shy” teen who spends most of her time cooking and cleaning for her frail grandmother.
“I did my chores and cooked,” she added. “That’s when my uncle arrived.”
“He saw my gran for a few minutes and then he called me quietly to another bedroom,” she explained. “ When I got there he told me to undress and if I dare scream he would kick my brothers and I out of the house he was paying for.”
“I refused but then he forced himself on me,” she said. “He started raping me and I started screaming. My gran did not hear…so he kept on raping me.”
“Then he just got up and left,” she said. “I was so scared and cried and cried until my brothers arrived, but I couldn’t tell them what happened because I felt so ashamed.”
Thato eventually told her grandmother, who confronted Thato’s uncle. He denied the allegations. Although Thato received medical care after the assault, no charges were ever filed against her uncle.
Huge degree of silencing
“We didn’t go to the police station because I didn’t want to tear the family apart,” said the teen.
According to Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust’s Counselling Coordinator Shiralee McDonald, rapes committed by family members or close family friends are among the most under-reported rapes.
[Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust links to rapecrisis.org.za/]
“There is a huge degree of silencing around family rape or incestuous rape,” said McDonald, who added that shame plays a key role in keeping survivors silent. “People hide it within families and pretend it is not happening, but there is an obligation to report a child who is at risk.
Read: Rap has become a culture
McDonald said many of the survivors that come to the Rape Crisis Centre report an uncle, grandfather, stepfather or mother’s boyfriend was behind the attack. She added that women’s lack of economic empowerment and patriarchal gender norms lead some men to think that they have power over females in the home.
“We come from a history of patriarchy and violence and now those nested eggs are hatching,” she explained. “If the rapist is a breadwinner, often the child is sacrificed so that the family won’t go hungry and so that they can still have a roof over their heads.”
Families also need to heal
Children like Thato often harbour not only feeling of shame, but also blame as if they did something to cause the attack. While survivors will deal with the aftermath of an attack differently, what is clear is that families – not only survivors – also need to heal.
“There is great shame, and if there is intervention it has to be at a family level as everyone has to heal,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all (solution) to deal with this issue of family rape.”
If you suspect a child could be at risk, you can report the matter to the South African Police Services or Child Welfare South Africa. Reporting can be done anonymously.
For more help, families and survivors can also contact the Rape Crisis 24-hour hotline on 021 447 9762.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the child