“Sexual abuse will remain the ‘safest’ crime to commit because people know that it is most likely going to go unreported”

Illustration. Getty Images
Illustration. Getty Images

Sexual violence is an enduring problem in South Africa, and the majority of sexual offences go unreported. In the current era of #MeToo and female empowerment, we have to ask: why don’t women report sexual assault?

Joburg-based clinical psychologist Lungile Lechesa made it her mission to find answers to this question, completing her Masters on the topic in late 2017. 

“Prior to pursuing my masters in psychology I was not really aware of the effects that rape has on survivors and that it was so prevalent and closer to home than I thought. When I was approached by my supervisor to consider this topic I was horrified at how many young women had been raped or sexually assaulted and yet they suffered in their silence,” she told W24.

“I was even more horrified by my ignorance and the recognition of how it may have contributed to survivors remaining silent. This led me to wonder about the factors that make survivors disclose but more importantly the factors that may prevent disclosure in order for us as clinicians to have a better understanding of how we can assist survivors,” Lungile added. 

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She believes that as more survivors see other survivors speak about their own experiences, and more importantly how society responds to disclosure, that this will definitely encourage more women to come forward. 

She told us that it is often the silence and stigma around sexual violence that contributes towards a reluctance on the part of victim-survivors to report incidents, which sadly leads in turn to few receiving the help they need. Many survivors of sexual violence display signs of psychological distress and might develop a psychological disorder.  

“Emotional inhibition about and/or nondisclosure of traumatic events is significantly associated with psychological problems such as dissociation, anxiety, depression, PTSD and mood disorders,” she says. 

Even when women do try to report, it is often traumatic and they are forced to relive the experience, sometimes several times, during the course of any ensuing investigation.

Lungile’s research found that one of the biggest contributing factors to non disclosure was the fear of what society, family and friends would say. “And it is often the nature of the relationship to the perpetrator that keeps women silent, as well as cultural norms and expectations that prevent women from coming forward,” she said. 

Refilwe is now in her mid 20s, she was raped by her boyfriend when she was 22 years old. She never reported it, and only disclosed to Lungile during the course of the research. She said that she comes from a very traditional and religious family and she could never disclose to them, because she should not have had a boyfriend in the first place. 

“As far as her family was concerned, her only focus should have been school and her studies,” reads Lungile’s thesis. “She later added that the family she originates from believed in a man being the head of the household, and such things as a wife reporting domestic abuse would be frowned upon – the wife would be told that she needs to go back to her husband and resolve the matter privately. With this upbringing in mind, Refilwe has always believed that women do not have a voice.”

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Even when women do try to report, it is often traumatic and they are forced to relive the experience, sometimes several times, during the course of any ensuing investigation. 

“If a disclosure is responded to in a negative and/or non-supportive way, the survivor is less likely to continue disclosing. If however they are responded to in a supportive way such as being believed and not being made to feel responsible,” Lungile said, “they are more likely to continue disclosing. Disclosure is often not a once off event but a process that requires support and encouragement the whole way.”

Grace shared her own story of non-supportive disclosure with W24. “When I was 16 I was assaulted by an older man I worked with. He followed me into an empty room, forcibly hugged me and then tried to kiss me, forcing his tongue into my mouth. It was disgusting and in shock I found strength shout and to push him away, and run out into a public area.”  

She continued, “No one witnessed this, but I immediately left work and told my parents, who came with me to report the assault to the manager on duty. He expressed concern, and asked me to write a written report of the events.” 

“I didn’t really want to go through it again, and felt lucky that it hadn’t been so much worse, but I wrote it out,” she told us, “at great emotional cost, and everyone had a chance to read my report before I was then placed on ‘temporary leave’ immediately, while the situation was investigated internally. The entire process was humiliating, and to my knowledge the attacker was never questioned.” 

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The perpetrator, however, was not placed on leave and after a few days Grace says she realised that nothing more was going to come of it. “I was young, my parents didn’t back me up after the initial meeting and rather than stand up for myself, I was encouraged to move on and find a new job.” She admits that the fact that the attacker got away with it still haunts her now, and she worries that he has been free to prey on other women. 

Sexual abuse can be a traumatic experience with various adverse physical and psychological difficulties and side effects. The disclosure of it, particularly in children is therefore very important.

Lungile says that some of the reasons women don’t report include their own feelings of shame, or fear, and the anticipated reaction from others. Sometimes women keep quiet after seeing other survivors’ experiences of disclosure. Many women don’t know how to disclose, or even have the opportunity to disclose.

“Perhaps one of the factors that prevents disclosure that personally perturbed me the most was that in instances of the perpetrator being a family member or a friend of the family; if and when the survivor discloses, the family decides (on behalf of the survivor) that it should be unspoken of and it becomes a family secret.  It must be mentioned that a significant percentage of rape is not by strangers but often by a family member or someone known to the survivor. This alone then adds onto the already complex nature of disclosure,” Lungile says.

Lungile’s research includes Ntombi’s harrowing story. Now in her 20s, Ntombi had been sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her brothers and her uncles from when she was age four until age 12.

“Ntombi’s disclosure of her sexual abuse was incidental, it was not by choice. As part of the Zulu tradition, Ntombi underwent regular virginity tests done by her grandmother, and despite not being a virgin (from the sexual abuse), Ntombi’s grandmother ‘cleared’ her with every test, which resulted in Ntombi being confused about what had happened to her and what it meant,” Lungile writes. 

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“At a later stage in her life, it emerged that she was not a virgin and was rumoured to have lost her virginity to a boy from her neighbourhood and her family did not approve. Ntombi received a public (physical and verbal) lashing from her aunt and her grandmother did not come forward to say that Ntombi had not been a virgin from childhood.”

There is no doubt that the stigma and secrecy attached to sexual abuse plays a significant role in survivors choosing to remain silent. “The participants all expressed their fear of being shamed, judged and labelled by society as rape is taboo and something that is not spoken of. Another significant factor in the prevention of disclosure is the unsupportive reaction survivors get from their environment or people they disclosed to,” Lungile says. 

Sexual abuse can be a traumatic experience with various adverse physical and psychological difficulties and side effects. The disclosure of it, particularly in children is therefore very important. “However, for as long as it is a taboo subject in society and the survivor is shamed and made to feel like it was their fault, people will choose to remain silent and opt for living with their trauma instead.

In my personal opinion, it is very nice and well to have campaigns against sexual abuse, but for as long as the effort to eradicate the silence, stigma and secrecy around sexual abuse is not made by each and every one of us (in normal everyday life), nothing will change - sexual abuse will remain the “safest” crime to commit because people know that it is most likely going to go unreported,” Lungile told us. 

Watch below: women share why they didn't report:

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