'I saw the man who raped me as a child and wanted to run him over – but I chose to forgive instead'

Illustration. Photographed by 	Dmitry Marchenko
Illustration. Photographed by Dmitry Marchenko
Dmitry Marchenko
  • Vanessa Chetty was raped by a family friend when she was 6. 
  • The abuse continued for five more years.
  • Vanessa met her rapist years later as an adult and was tempted to run him over with her vehicle – but she chose to forgive him.

The 47-year-old mother of two is a force to be reckoned with; raped at 6 by a family friend and forced to endure another 5 years of abuse by the same person has made her a powerful advocate for other victims. As she shares her story, you cannot help but be in awe of her strength.

“I was the youngest of six children. My parents split when I was 5, and that was a very confusing time for me. About a year later, I was abused by someone known to my family. People always talk about 'stranger danger', but in reality most kids are abused by someone they know. This was someone that I knew and trusted, so I didn’t see it coming. When you trust someone, your guard is down. I didn’t ever realise what was happening, I thought it was some sort of rough playing. I was just a child.”

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Vanessa’s abuser told her not to say anything because no one would believe her anyway. “Also, I didn’t really understand what had happened. I knew that something had happened, but I couldn’t comprehend it, which is why I didn’t say anything to anyone. We come from a culture where we don’t talk about these things”. 

Vanessa’s abuser also threatened her. “He said he would cause me more harm if I said anything, and he would tell people that I wanted him to do that. I think the fear of not being believed was what kept me silent and was a portal for him to continue the abuse for the next five years.”

Vanessa opened up about her abuse for the first time at a church youth group meeting. “It was kind of a safe space for me as everyone else was sharing their past experiences. There must have been about 25 other girls in the room, and the sad reality was that nearly 80 per cent had similar experiences. Some had been touched inappropriately, and some had been raped.  All of them confirmed that they had been abused by someone they knew.”

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Vanessa says that even though faith-based organizations may be a safe space to speak about these issues, they are not always equipped to deal with it. “It’s a safe place to speak about it, but not to get help. Nobody could help me, no one knew what to do with the information. It was much later on in my life that I sought professional help.”

As a result of this, she is passionate about training faith-based organisations on how to deal with these issues. “It’s not because they don’t want to help, many are just not equipped to do so.” Vanessa and her husband, Siva, pastor a church in Chatsworth and also run a programme called “Broken Crayons Still Colour” where abuse survivors share their stories and their healing journey. Vanessa came face to face with her perpetrator again when she was an adult. “I was at a shopping centre and I saw him. He was living on the streets and begging for money. 

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He came to my window and asked me for a R5. I could see from his face that he did not recognize me. He had last seen me as a child, so at that moment he had no idea who I was. I was sitting there with tears streaming down my face. 

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"Every fibre of my being wanted to kill him. Every episode of those five years of rape just played out that day as I stared at his face. My first instinct was to run him down with my vehicle. I even started my engine and was ready to do it, but a voice in my head said no, forgive him. It was like I was having a fight in my head. I was so angry, but at the same, there was this overwhelming feeling that filled me and suddenly caused me to feel mercy for him. I couldn’t even explain it.”

“I gave him the R5. I was shaking and crying and said, “I forgive you” and drove off. I don’t know if he heard me or if he even understood what I was saying as he was drunk, but I heard me, and I felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders. I felt so free at the moment.”

 “For the longest time, I blamed myself for not speaking out. In that moment ,I forgave myself, and I forgave him. Vanessa found out that her abuser died a few weeks later. 

She then sought professional help and, through that, was able to share her story with others. “Once I had healed emotionally, I started to share my story on public platforms. And in the last year, I’ve felt there’s another story that I need to tell – the story of my perpetrator. I was in a place of healing, and I could finally look at him as a person and not a monster. It’s an incredible journey of healing that you have to come through in order to not see the monster. I had to come to that moment where I asked “is he also a victim of circumstance, why did he choose me, was I just there by chance?“ 

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Vanessa also met other victims who had been abused by the same man. “I wanted to understand why someone would do this. And through this, I found that he was also a victim of circumstance, he was also a victim of a different kind of abuse. I’ve now also started to focus on the abuser as well. Sometimes – and I’m not blanketing it – but sometimes child victims manifest as adult perpetrators and that narrative needs to be told so that we can stop that cycle.”

Vanessa founded The Hope Foundation in 2001. The aim of the NPO is to reach out to victims of rape, child abuse, domestic abuse and human trafficking. The foundation provides counselling to survivors and their families.  Vanessa is also the Deputy Chairperson of Faith Based Child Protection Movement. She was invited to speak at the recent Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Africa Summit 2022. 

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