This afternoon I called the Department of Social Development’s newly launched 24 hour call centre for victims of gender based violence. This is supposed to be a service that will direct victims to local organisations and it is staffed by qualified social workers. While the intention is to cover the entire country, the new service will be piloted in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal.
The first time I called I was answered by an automated attendant, in English, and informed that my call would be located and recorded and that I should wait for the next available consultant. There were a few seconds of canned muzak and then I was cut off. I tried again. This time a consultant answered, introducing herself and asking for my name. I stated the reason for my call and she asked me for my name again. She then asked me to spell my name. Which took a long time and then I had to give her my address and spell it all out for her and then give her my telephone number. Then she asked me why I had called so I repeated the reason for my call, which was to find a referral organisation in Johannesburg for a caller from Rivonia who needed a face-to-face counselling service for a child victim of sexual abuse. She asked me twice whether it was the adult caller or the child that needed counselling and said she would find the number for ChildLine and call me back. Which she still has not done. Furthermore ChildLine is not a face-to-face service and in any event also not adequately funded.
Much can be forgiven for a new service with newly qualified social workers feeling first time on the job nerves. But the complete violation of any privacy a caller might wish to have through locating and recording the call, the coldness of being informed of this by an automated attendant and having to give my name and telephone number before I could even tell my story would have stopped me in my tracks had I been a rape survivor experiencing recent shock and trauma. I would not have made it past the first call.
As few as one in thirteen adults report rape in South Africa. Reasons for this underreporting include the fact that many people do not know how the criminal justice system works, they do not know what their rights are to access services within the system and they do not have faith in the criminal justice system’s ability to successfully convict rapists. They are often met by insensitive and ignorant treatment by officials.
Speaking out about rape can be a way for rape survivors to access help, to bring rapists to justice and to hold society accountable for believing the myths and reinforcing the stereotypes about rape that abound. It can be an opportunity to reclaim some of the power taken by the rapist and it can lead to a process of healing for the survivor.
When people who are not survivors speak out they open a space in which to talk about sexist ideas in order to gain a better appreciation for the complexities of rape and the contexts in which it occurs. We can better understand the challenges survivors face in reporting rape and holding rapists accountable and learn how to support those survivors who have been able to speak about it.
Throughout the year, Rape Crisis is launching a series of powerful portraits of rape survivors who came forward to have their photographs taken for our Don’t Hide, Speak Out campaign. We are calling on all people living in South Africa to support rape survivors who speak out.
This call has to be backed by a corresponding capacity in the state to respond. That response has to be staffed by specialised, experienced, expert helpers who recognise both the right and need of the survivor to have her privacy respected. The survivor’s need for sensitivity in the face of trauma must be paramount. This call centre is a well intentioned effort on the part of government but we worry that it will lead to further secondary victimisation – the same victimisation that survivors experience within the criminal justice system. It assumes that there are enough services out there to meet the needs of people calling in. With government not providing adequate funding to specialised Non Profit Organisations there may well not be enough services to refer to and existing services may not be able to cope with the added demand placed on them by the call centre.
We call on government and the business sector to plough resources into the organisations that will be on the front line of giving support to the Department of Social Development’s call centre. We welcome solidarity from international organisations in offering support to innovative solutions to the problem of gender based violence that can have global application. If we are calling on survivors to stop hiding and speak out then their courage needs to be met by skilful, sensitive people supported by well resourced organisations. Not by an automated service playing elevator music and a consultant who doesn’t call you back.
By Kathleen Dey, Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.