by Miles Collins
The sexual offences statistics that were released recently have once again emphasised that there is a problem of under reporting of rapes in South Africa. Rape survivors face many barriers on their road to justice, and reporting remains one of the largest. Our criminal justice system does little to prevent secondary victimisation when survivors do report. We are therefore faced with a complex issue, where encouraging rape survivors to report, no matter how well intentioned, can lead to further trauma instead of healing.
Secondary trauma is often the result of the negative experiences a survivor has when engaging with the criminal justice system – but it doesn’t always start there.
In the aftermath of a rape it is understandable that a survivor’s loved ones would want justice for the person they care about. In the process of trying to help, they might not realise the negative effect the pressure to report or talk about what happened can have on a survivor. The popular narrative of talking or writing about trauma in general can be harmful; it places implicit moral pressure on survivors that they owe speaking out about it to other people when they aren’t ready to do so. Simply recounting what happened, even to friends and family, may cause a survivor to relive the events and experience additional trauma. It is therefore crucial to understand why so many survivors never make it to the point to reporting, and if they do why they are unable to follow through with the process.
In an interview with eNCA, Statistician General Pali Lehohla addressed the reluctance of survivors to report to the police: “In terms of reporting it at the police station, the stigma that is associated with it, all those things make it impossible for people to follow through and report. People ask, why didn’t you report? And they would say: ‘Well, we didn’t think the police would do anything about it’.” This statement reflects the insensitive attitudes survivors are often faced with when trying to open a case.
This behaviour may be attributed to various factors. When service providers believe rape myths and stereotypes, it perpetuates harmful stigma. This behaviour is exacerbated by prejudice about certain “types” of survivors and affects the way they are treated. We see the effect of rape myths when officers dismiss a case or refuse to take it seriously if they believe that the survivor provoked it. Some of the contributing factors are structural such as under staffing, a dearth of resources and inadequate sensitivity training. These structural problems result in survivors not receiving adequate services such as being informed about the health risks after being rape and being referred for medical care.
Aside from the glaring hurdles in the system, even if a survivor reports and gets the care she needs, she is still at risk for secondary trauma every step of the way. The road to justice doesn’t end in the police station; the forensic unit and the court room provide a whole new set of challenges.
Rape Crisis uses Judith Herman’s four principles of empowerment, in order to best maintain a standard for service delivery aimed at rebuilding trust and preventing secondary trauma on the journey to healing. The four principles are: Safety, Choice, Respect and Ongoing support.
- Safety: It is important to make survivors feel physically, emotionally and mentally safe at all times. At Rape Crisis we provide confidential, safe spaces both with our 24-hour helpline, and counselling rooms.
- Choice: Service providers need to provide survivors with a range of information in order to allow them to make informed and involved choices about their journey. Our counsellors understand the importance of explaining every aspect of the journey through the criminal justice system, so that survivors know what is required of them.
- Respect: All survivors need to be taken seriously. Service providers need to affirm their respect with an approach free of prejudice and bias. Rape Crisis seeks to actively dispel rape myths, and has a policy against discrimination.
- Ongoing support: Survivors need to be supported emotionally and practically beyond the service itself. This includes referring or informing a survivor of other available resources. Our Court Support Project is one example of hands-on direct assistance to survivors both as an advisory and a emotional support presence during a court case.
Whether a survivor decides to report a rape or even to speak out about it is a deeply personal process, and not a choice that anyone else should make for her. We need to stop putting pressure on survivors to report their rapes, and instead address the factors that make the very idea of doing so in an often-hostile environment difficult to do at all. The onus is on us as service providers and supporters to help create an environment of safety and trust, to play our part in helping to prevent secondary trauma on the long road to justice.
Miles Collins is an intern at Rape Crisis currently studying journalism with an interest in radio.