Brave women like Cheryl Zondi and Dr Christine Blasey Ford have become new champions for sexual assault victims

Cheryl Zondi, 22, testifies during the trial against controversial Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso and his co-accused Zukiswa Sitho and Lusanda Sulani at the Port Elizabeth High Court on 10 October 2018
Cheryl Zondi, 22, testifies during the trial against controversial Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso and his co-accused Zukiswa Sitho and Lusanda Sulani at the Port Elizabeth High Court on 10 October 2018

In October 2017, Harvey Weinstein faced the first of many sexual assault allegations.

While women started to come forward to report their experiences of sexual assault at Harvey's hands, the #MeToo hashtag went viral as others spoke up in solidarity about their own personal accounts. 

It's been a year since the term #MeToo went viral, and at this point hundreds of women like Dr Christine Blasey Ford have been brave enough to stand and call out sexual assault globally.

In The South African, however, Fran Blandy and Grace Matsiko report that "the #MeToo campaign has given mostly Western women confidence to speak up about violence at the hands of men, but in Africa, women say stigma and victim-blaming still keep many silent." 

READ MORE: #MeToo: Women reveal sexual harassment stories with in wake of Harvey Weinstein scandal 

This is not a far reach: globally, the hashtag is a pillar of strength and a beacon of hope to women who have been silenced about their sexual assault experiences. However, undeniably, the experience of international women is different for women locally. 

Several days ago, I asked five or six women how they felt about the #MeToo movement and whether or not they thought it was helping South African women speak up about sexual assault. They all asked me that, before they would share their input, I explain to them what the #MeToo movement was.

They had never heard of it prior to my question. At first, I thought it might just have slipped their minds but my mentioning Harvey Weinstein confused them even more. 

I was surprised, but then I understood. I only asked a handful of women, yet what came to mind was the probability that it wouldn't be much news to anyone who is from a society that doesn't know of women who've bravely come forward and laid charges against men; a society that doesn't entirely believe that rape is a punishable crime; and a society that hasn't seen the legal system stand with women to see to it that justice is rightfully served. 

READ MORE: MY STORY: I was raped twice as a teen - but I overcame it 

There are women in our country who have not reported their sexual assault cases because there are families who choose to protect the perpetrators in the name of saving face.

There are women in our country who have not reported anything because - due to the deeply rooted misconceptions of consent and power - they think no one will believe that it was rape. 

When the #MeToo movement is seemingly centred around mainly white, American women, the reality of our own societies and the reality of why women here cannot openly speak up about what's been done to their bodies and psyches makes the beacon of hope look very dim when it reaches our shores. 

This is why Cheryl Zondi testifying against Timothy Omotoso is indescribably significant to South African women. 

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

Currently, Cheryl, 22, is in court testifying against pastor Timothy Omotoso in the High Court in Port Elizabeth. The pastor allegedly molested and sexually groomed her when she was 14. News24 reports that she is "the first from a list of 49 witnesses who are expected to be called to give evidence on the sordid sex life of the televangelist." 

I watched Cheryl testify yesterday. I watched her speak calmly and clearly, and I was in awe of her strength and her will. I listened to the way she was interrogated and understood why women are still not brave enough to come forward. Being cross-examined and questioned by defence attorney Peter Daubermann, Cheryl was forced to answer for why she didn't scream or resist, and at some point she had to explain why she didn't simply ask the pastor to stop.

She remained composed in her responses in spite of a distasteful line of questioning; mirroring the composure that women are compelled to have when being emotional could cost them their credibility

"When you got into the bed," Peter asked her, "what did you think was going to happen?"

"I thought ‘this is it; he’s going to rape me now’. I knew very well that I should just let him do what he wanted to do." Cheryl responded.  

“You just lay there? You didn’t resist in any way?” he asked her. “Yes,” she said. 

READ MORE: Monica Lewinsky's new anti-bullying campaign #DefytheName, takes a strong stance against vicious name-calling 

Victim-blaming and the shame that comes with it is why so many women suffer in silence. In an article about workplace bullying, one of the women interviewed said that after she reported a sexual assault at work, the women she worked with attacked her for reporting the case. "They would say that I shouldn't have reported it because I am a woman and these things are supposed to happen; my body is supposed to be touched whether I want it to or not", she explained.

When a woman testifies, she's not only testifying against one or several accused men, but she is testifying against a myriad of societal beliefs around rape and sexual assault: the belief that men are entitled to her body, that men will always get away with it, that men will always use sex as leverage, and that women, if they really wanted to, could always 'just say no'. 

We need more women like Cheryl to stand bravely, not just for justice's sake, but for the women who don't yet know that society can be challenged, and that women can win such a fight in more ways than one. 

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