#HerNameWasVovo and she was a human being

I am a middle-class, white, cis-gender woman who is perceived to be heterosexual. Because of this I am protected in many ways from the hate and violence that is levelled against poor, black queer people like Noluvo Swelindawo, who was kidnapped from her house in Driftsands and murdered because she is a lesbian. I am not sexualised and perceived as ‘deviant’ in the way that Noluvo is. My body has not being transformed by hundreds of years of exploitation into something unhuman, like hers has.

Noluvo Swelindawo

Noluvo Swelindawo. Pic: IOL

But I am not as protected as I have always thought. On the 30th of October 2015 I was raped.

I do not profess to know what Noluvo experienced as a queer black woman, but I have experienced what it means to have violence acted out on me, because of what I represent; that which is less than man, that which is woman. I know what it is to be grabbed, strangled, dragged, penetrated. I know what it is to look into the face of a man and fear that he will kill me and leave my broken body in a clump of bushes. I know what it is to fear that those I loved would find me like this. I know what it is to have my humanity ripped away from me, to feel that I am no longer myself.

The murder of Noluvo forced me to reflect on what it means to be a human being in South Africa, what it means to inhabit this precarious, fractured space. On reflecting on the murder of Noluvo, I am forced to mourn for all of us who can read this kind of story and then carry on with our lives, when the lives of so many are being ended, when so many are being stripped of their dignity, their freedom and their humanity.

The valuing of my life, over the lives of other women, was made clear when I attended a government clinic following my own rape. Here I was repeatedly asked who I was accompanying for treatment – because surely this well-dressed white girl could not be the one who was raped? The fact that I cannot comfortably be seen as a ‘rape survivor’ and  that so many people have wanted not to believe what has happened to me when they so easily believe and overlook when the same happens to other women, is deeply revealing of how dehumanisation has become a key social coping mechanism.

If I had been murdered, those of you, who feel that this can’t happen to people like us, would have cried and probably brought flowers, like you did for Franziska Blochliger. You might have raged and screamed. You might even have marched to ensure that this does not happen to another young woman, like me. You would have recognised my humanity and that it was unacceptable for this to be taken from me.

You will not, I fear, do the same for Noluvo.

*Republished with permission.




Rebecca Helman will begin her PhD, which explores “post-rape subjectivities” at UNISA in 2017. She is researcher at the UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences & SAMRC-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit and a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust’s Observatory office.

Follow her blog here. 





Stop shaming survivors for not reporting rape

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.

Shaming survivors who don't report increases the risk of secondary trauma. (Photo: Alexa Sedgwick)

The road to justice is immensely challenging. Shaming survivors who don’t report only adds to the existing trauma.  (Photo: Alexa Sedgwick)

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.

Transcending my Victimhood

By Monique van Vuuren

The first time I disclosed anything about being raped was last year, six years after it happened. First I wrote about it, very explicitly, and the first person I showed it to was my mother. It was difficult but writing about it made a way for me to feel comfortable enough to talk about it.


Last year I self-published a book titled Secrets, dark suffocating shadows: A memoir for liberation but even though the book was published, I had not dealt with my biggest secret.

Personally, I wanted to reclaim power over the devastating effects that life-changing event caused in my life.

When I did not speak out, I took power away from myself and my silence protected the man who disrespected my bodily integrity. I know that many rape survivors do not report rape and that many cases do not result in a conviction. Those whom the legal system has failed should speak out about the flaws in this system so that it can improve and we can finally see a difference in the scary statistics.

My secret silenced me, my agency and my choices.  It was deeply entrenched in the very fibers of my being and was internalised in all the social codes that I lived by. Secrets and silence are suffocating and they left me depressed and disempowered. This is what inspired me to write. Through writing I hope to create a platform that encourages the sharing of difficulties and speaking out in others.

“In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” ― Adrienne Rich

This year, seven years after the event occurred, I have sought counselling at Rape Crisis. It has provided me with tools to transcend identifying myself only as a victim. I think that counselling is really about exposing myself to myself. It allows me to stay true to myself. Holding in pent up emotion is not healthy for me. Experiencing a trauma reminded me that I am not a machine; I may be hard and tough on the exterior, but I am an emotional being and soft on the inside. For some people there is still a stigma around counselling and many people don’t seek out this kind of support. But for me, counselling has allowed me to put back together the puzzle pieces that have been scattered about in my life for a long time.

What would you like to see as a result of the Don’t Hide, Speak Out campaign?

This campaign aims to empower rape survivors and puts a face to the statistics we so often ignore.  I hope that this campaign will help to ignite activism around the issue of rape and encourage those who have experienced it to speak out and take the first steps toward healing. To me, my picture represents transcending my victimhood.


 “A word after a word after a word is power.” ― Margaret Atwood

Find out more about Monique’s book Secrets: Dark suffocating shadows. A memoir for liberation on facebook.

A mother’s eight arduous years of searching finally over

By Wengi Africa

As a counsellor at Rape Crisis we face many challenges but always we learn from our clients in the process.  Working with refugee clients is different, it is hard, makes us feel helpless and that we can never do enough. That sitting there and thinking about the different resources that are available are never going to be enough.  The story I would like to tell you about is one that has shown me that I should never give up, that small things can make a difference that change can happen and perhaps not in the way that we think it could.

*Ndege is 38 years old and came from the Congo to South Africa.  I started counselling Ndege who was experiencing depression and symptoms of trauma.  What struck me though was the story of why she was in South Africa.  As a refugee, fleeing from her home, surviving multiple rapes, she came to South Africa because she had this idea that her children had travelled here.  Ndege walked through different countries searching for her children; she went through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia searching for them in each country to no avail.  Her feet became bloodied and toenails torn but she carried on.  Each time she walked past a child, she would look at them to see whether it was her own child and then wonder about her children.  She had a very clear picture in her mind of each of her 13 children, what they looked like, how they sounded.  She held the picture of each of her children in her mind.  She always had the hope that she would find them.

She told me the story of how she was parted from her children during the war.  One of her 13 children was 8 months old at the time and still being breastfed.  I felt completely sad and concerned because of what it evokes in me as a mother and the thought of what it would be like for me to be parted from my children.  She told me that she didn’t care that her 8 month old would now be grown up; she would still put him on her back and carry him around.  It felt important to try and mobilise our resources in order to see whether she could be reunited with her children.  I contacted Petronille Mukarugwiza from the Tracing Department at the International Red Cross and set up an appointment for Ndege to see her.  Before meeting with Petronille, Ndege was relating the story of her missing children to a neighbour who then said that she had heard that Ndege’s children might be on the Uganda and DRC border.

Her neighbour called someone who lived in the area who was then able to confirm the location of her children.  Ndege was given the number for her eldest daughter.  Imagine Ndege’s joy at being able to speak to her daughter whom she had prayed was still alive and well after 8 years of being parted!  The International Organization on Migration (IOM) interviewed Ndege and agreed to help Ndege reunite with her children in the DRC.  It was a coincidence that I was in the office and had just had a supervision meeting when the crisis line received a call for me.  I answered and it was Ndege calling from the DRC to say how happy she was, she sounded very excited – I wish everyone could hear the joy that I heard.  She was so joyous I could hardly hear all that she was trying to tell me on the phone.  Her son recognised her, the children were fine and they were all very happy to be together again.

Ndege’s story has given me hope, courage and a sense of motivation.  Her story evokes joy within me and I have a renewed appreciation of myself and what I do.  What I take from Ndege is that we should never give up, there are always small things that can change lives.  A small conversation with a neighbour lead to a very profound change in one woman’s life and those of her children.  The importance of communication and listening to others… taking that time.

Thank you to Zoe Rohde and her team at the IOM.  The logistics were not easy to arrange but Ndege says that she was treated “like a queen” returning home after a long absence.  IOM staff accompanied Ndege at each point on her journey home.

*The survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.