Why some survivors of gender-based violence and rape prefer not to report their cases

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Illustration. Getty Images
Illustration. Getty Images
  • In 2020, it's been repeatedly said that women are fighting two pandemics - Covid-19 and gender-based violence. 
  • This month, a 28-year-old pregnant woman lost her life at the violent hands of an intimate partner, and there have been multiple reported cases of a similar nature ever since.
  • This has sparked conversation - once again - about the rampant issue of rape and gender-based violence South African women live in fear of daily.

They say "investigation feels like a second assault" and as a result, many choose to not report when they have been raped. If you consider the frightening fact that rape essentially renders one's body a crime scene they cannot escape or avoid visiting, you understand why survivors opt out of giving almost daily blow-by-blow accounts of the war on their bodies. 

READ MORE: OPINION | We are not hearing enough about protecting abused women amid this pandemic

This is true of Marie Adler, a teenager who was raped by an intruder at knifepoint while sleeping in her home. Unlike Breonna Taylor, who was not sexually assaulted, but was killed while sleeping in her home too, Marie lived to tell the story. When she reported the chilling incident, she was gaslighted by two profoundly obtuse male police offers, to the extent that she retracted her report. 

Inspired by these true events that consequently led to this teen survivor being charged with lying about having been raped, a Netflix limited crime series titled Unbelievable was released last September, introducing the viewer to the two female detectives who took it upon themselves to follow a twisting path to arrive at the truth.

It is also based on The Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, An Unbelievable Story of Rape, written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, and the This American Life radio episode, “Anatomy of Doubt.”  

And it's at the hands of two male detectives who keep probing for a gap in Marie Adler's recollection of her assault in order to render it untrue - in the first episode she had relived her trauma seven times within 24 hours of experiencing it - so much so that she eventually gives in and retracts the case.  

Watching the 8-episode series was an experience very different to one's usual series binge, as this portrays a story of unspeakable trauma, unwavering tenacity, as well as astounding resilience from the two female detectives, Karen DuVall (Merritt Weaver) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Colette) who worked tirelessly to achieve justice for a serial rapist's victims. 

“They just kept asking me the same question, ‘How come your story doesn’t add up? How come people don’t believe you?’”

“Even with people that you can trust, if the truth is inconvenient, they don’t believe it.” 

These are two of the statements a perpetually upset Marie says in the series that, without a doubt, left many crestfallen. Dejected. Even hopeless. Similarly to how recent news reports have made us feel over the past few weeks.

Because this was not only this U.S. teen's reality in 2011, but it continues to be the plight of women all over the world, and more visibly this month, in South Africa - Africa's hotspot for femicide, gender-based violence, rape and sexual assault. One might even sadly call this country a rapist's nirvana.

Plus, the stats don't lie, as data from the World Health Organization’s Violence and Injury Prevention Programme revealed the following;

"The global rate of femicide for 2015 was 2.4 per 100,000 women. South Africa’s rate for the same year was 9.6 per 100,000 women. This would mean that South Africa’s rate is four times that of the global average when considering the latest estimates. When actual data for 2010 is considered, we see that the country’s femicide rate was then 5.1 times higher than the global average." 

READ MORE: Women from this African country could face jail time for reporting sexual harassment 

"Why we don't report"

At this point, you might recall a hashtag by the name, #WhyIDidntReport in which survivors of sexual assault shared the reasons why they didn't report.  

Joburg-based clinical psychologist Lungile Lechesa made it her mission to find answers to this question, completing her Masters on this topic in late 2017. In an interview with W24 last year, she expressed that "emotional inhibition about and/or nondisclosure of traumatic events is significantly associated with psychological problems such as dissociation, anxiety, depression, PTSD and mood disorders." 

In addition, Lungile mentioned 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." 

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. 

In the article written by Elizabeth Mamacos for W24, Refilwe's story from Lungile's thesis was also shared as follows;

"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."

Another survivor, 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.” 

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

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."

"Sexual violence in our country has become impossible to ignore"

Amid the news of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana's death last year, local attorney Tracey-Lomax Nixon posted the following on Twitter: 

I hereby offer my services, pro bono, to women and children who have been raped or assaulted. Forget the criminal courts. Let's sue the f******. Let's hit them where it hurts. I challenge all lawyers to do the same. Flood the courts with damages claims.

Upon catching wind of this Tweet, W24 reached out to Tracey Lomax-Nixon to further unpack how the 'Unbelievable' can become believable when restorative justice prevails.  

Explaining how she's been working alongside the founder of registered NPO Access To Justice, Sheena Jonker, for years now (during the time of Fees Must Fall), Tracey says the decision to offer her services pro bono wasn't "as sudden as it seems". 

"Unlike Fees Must Fall, sexual violence has always been there - we allowed it to become white noise, then it got louder, and it became white noise all over again," she says referring to the seasons of collective outrage our country experiences whenever a woman goes missing or dies mercilessly at the hands of violent men, and you realise it could have been you or a loved one. 

This is the kind of realisation that hit this attorney when Amy-Leigh de Jager was snatched from her mother's car (she was since reunited with her family). "It was a little white girl - she could've been my daughter." 

"We react when we think 'that could've been me'", she expresses, also adding that the murder of Uyinene took her "over the edge".

This is why Tracey Lomax-Nixon showed a willingness to help rape survivors in South Africa in a way that allows them to reclaim their power.

"Put her in charge of the process" 

A quick refresher with regards to why some survivors don't report; "investigation feels like a second assault", as seen with Unbelievable's Marie Adler - a story based on true events.

By offering a civil claim procedure as an alternative, Tracey acknowledges that the criminal justice court is ill-equipped to deal with sexual violence. 


Because the accused's rights, which include the right to presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, also have to be observed. "As a constitutional lawyer, I agree they [do indeed have those rights]."

However, Tracey caveats that "the only way to prove consent [in a rape trial] is to retraumatise the victim," and therein lies the mass reluctance to report, as mentioned earlier in this article. 

By opting for restorative justice over the criminal court, the plaintiff is put in charge of the process. 

"She's dominus litis. That is - she is the dominant person in the litigation." And as a result, she eliminates the triggers and process of getting retraumatised. 

"It allows us to address the violence and prioritise the survivors' right to dignity. It is judged on the premise of asking 'did this person harm you wrongfully?'" 

This way, a rape survivor can walk out with a court order that says 'I believe you were sexually violated'.

Tracey therefore explains that the other means by which a woman can find further solace through this procedure is that a civil judgement can only be expunged after 30 years, unlike a criminal judgement for which a charged criminal can apply for the expungement thereof after only 10 years. 

It's at this point that Tracey Lomax-Nixon posits; "Do we want to punish men? No. We want to give women power. Punishment won't end sexual violence and rape - education [on rape culture and conversations around it] will." 

"We want women to reclaim their power," she concludes. 

If you or anyone close to you are looking for someone who will believe them, you may make use of the following options:

Email: Endviolence@accesstojustice.co.za 

Dial: *134*7355# to get assistance from the TEARS Foundation

Call: 021 447 9762 to reach the 24hr Rape Crisis helpline 

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