I Believe Her: On the Power of Rape Survivors’ Voices

downloadEach time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women. – Maya Angelou

I don’t know how women do it.

Every now and again, the veil is lifted on the quiet terror all women live with each day. A violent crime is brought into the public domain, and we have to look the worst effects of violent masculinity in the eye. Usually, there is a woman’s voice at the centre. She stands in maelstrom, sharing the details of her trauma, all the while knowing that she might not be believed or that she will almost certainly be victimised even further.

Cheryl Zondi’s testimony in the trial of alleged rapist Timothy Omotoso felt different. Yes, we watched as Omotoso’s lawyer tried to discredit and diminish Zondi’s story. Yes, we saw some of the usual tired victim-blaming tropes emerging. But even with all of that, conversation and commentary remained supportive of Zondi. For once, we seemed to focus on the crime and the perpetrator, rather than the moral character of the survivor brave enough to tell her story, in the presence of the person who violated her. We were appalled at the way in which the justice system allowed the open revictimisation of someone who had not only survived primary victimisation but was willing to discuss it in the public forum.

So, what made this trial, and this survivor’s testimony different? What makes this case stand out, as opposed to the Zuma trial, the Kawa case, and so many other cases in which survivors were not believed and the public participated in their secondary victimisation? Put simply, by allowing for hers to be one of the few testimonies broadcast live into the homes of South Africans, Zondi gave face and voice to the trauma of sexual violence. While we could only imagine and speculate as to what Khwezi survived, in the Omotoso case, we have Cheryl Zondi, a survivor who reveals her face and her voice, in real time.

This is not to say that that’s right: we shouldn’t have to catalogue our pain in such public forums for it to be taken seriously. Women have been whispering about and screaming against sexual violence for so long, it seems unfair that society is only waking up to it at this moment. But Zondi’s publicised testimony was also broadcast in the wake of the #MeToo moment. In this particular global moment, women across the world are, perhaps for the first time, speaking everywhere and in various ways about what we have survived. Maybe Cheryl Zondi has, like many women, seen the tweets, read the countless stories, and heard echoes of her own pain. And there is a deep power in knowing that there are voices near and far, local and global, that will echo your own.

It makes even the quietest voice sound loud with conviction.

Perhaps that is the power of this moment brought to us by Cheryl Zondi’s testimony. In speaking publicly and possibly drawing on the strength of the #MeToo moment, she is creating further echoes and empowering even more survivors to add their voices to what should be a constant chorus of real outrage driving change. Because we believe Zondi, we might believe the next woman and the next, without having to see their faces and hear their words.

Because the truth is that, it is still an enormously risky thing to ‘come out’ as a survivor. You expose yourself to unfriendly clinical examinations of memories you may have worked hard to blur and bury. You are pulled into a process completely removed from the context in which you endured trauma and are compelled to relive it, with an audience. The 19 women who came forward and submitted their statements on the sexual harassment and assault they experienced and/or witnessed at Equal Education understandably stood fast in their right to remain anonymous. The independent inquiry took this insistence on anonymity as a reason to exclude their stories from their process. How sad. How strange. That years after their experiences at Equal Education, 19 women are still so afraid that they cannot make themselves known to an independent panel. But where you and I sense deep fear, the panel chooses to see procedural impropriety.

Stories like the unfolding Equal Education saga are proof of just how much it takes to speak out as a survivor. The #MeToo movement emboldened us somewhat and provided us with multiple ways to tell our stories. The Zondi testimony shows that society is now open to hearing and possibly even believing women. Just as long as we tell our stories publicly, in open court, before a judicial authority.

What I hope will be the enduring lesson of the Zondi testimony – what I want for all survivors who held our breaths through it – is that even as society still shuts out survivors who choose to speak differently, quietly, anonymously, we know that the public voices of women like Cheryl Zondi echo our own anonymous ones, and that we will be believed. Not by everyone, not everywhere.

But certainly by more people than would have believed us before.

By Rumbi Goredema Görgens

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Enter Rumbi is a Zimbabwean-born South African-based feminist author. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Vela Magazine, and on FeministsSA.com and MyFirstTimeSA.com. She has worked with various South African civil society organisations, including Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Find more of her work at Rumbi Writes.a caption

 

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Women: listen to your inner voice and act

As #MeToo sets the stage for how things should be, rather than how they have been, I’m thinking of how, for so long, prevention of sexual assault has been aimed at women. Don’t walk there, don’t wear that, don’t go out alone, don’t stay in alone. Read the signs. Notice the behaviour. Tell them it’s not okay.

For far too long.

Too late we’re changing the discussion and placing the responsibility where it should lie: with the choices men make. Simple. Just don’t do it. Don’t make up excuses in your mind for why it is okay generally, or specifically, or just this once. Just stop cat-calling, leering, staring, touching, trying your luck, and forcing your will. Just stop.

That said, there is one more responsibility I do want to put on women: act on your gut and act fast. If you don’t listen to your Mentor Within, to your inner wisdom, you won’t be safe. And if you don’t act fast you’re more likely to be in danger. I have been listening to the themes that have emerged over the last few days in the media, and apart from the relief that the secrets are out, and the outrage that trusted men can behave this way, there is another theme that is emerging. Women just want it to stop, but they don’t want anyone hurt in the process.

This is one of the reasons for the silence. Yes, there’s humiliation, and the real fear of losing a contract or a job, or of breaking up the family, but more than anything there is a belief that people are essentially good and if we play fair, surely the men will too. But they won’t. Not these kinds of men. Not the men who are entitled, narcissistic conquerors. Not the men who really don’t care. They’ll sooner throw you under the bus than admit their behaviour, and they’re not about to stop unless they are forced to.

I remember when I was travelling many years back, aged 19. We were being taken back to where we were staying by a taxi driver. Half way to our residence the taxi driver stopped on the edge of a lake. I asked him why he was stopping, and he said in broken English that the car had trouble. I had heard this man speaking English earlier and it wasn’t nearly as broken as it was as he tried to give us a reason for stopping in this deserted spot. I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck and a rush of adrenalin, which I knew was there to keep me safe. “There’s nothing wrong with the car,” I told him, as he asked us to move to another car. But he insisted we had to change cars.

He was messing with the wrong woman. “We’ll go with that car, but you’re staying here. We’re not going with two men”, I said. “Also, the guys who put us in the taxi took your registration number and they know who you are. We told them your name. So one wrong move by your friend and you’ll both have a lot to account for. Now make sure he gets us there fast as we are being expected by our hosts and if we don’t arrive by 7pm they’ll be out looking for us.”

I could see his resolve crumble. Whatever he’d had planned was just a bit too inconvenient. He spoke to his friend in a language I couldn’t understand, and with a few nods, the friend took us swiftly back to where we were staying.

Throughout, my friend hadn’t said a word. Like three other occasions I can remember when I was with another woman in danger, if I had not acted fast, decisively and on the front foot who knows what would have happened?

Women won’t always be able to get out of dangerous situations but sometimes by making a scene we can avert atrocious behaviour. Far more often, though, women either panic and freeze or don’t want to draw attention or blame someone when they might be wrong.

At no other time is it more appropriate to “act now and ask forgiveness if you’re wrong”.

Just do it. Trust your gut, and act fast when there’s a threat. Don’t do it the nice way, don’t take your time about it, and don’t be scared to call it out and draw other people’s attention.

“Scream

So that one day

A hundred years from now

Another sister will not have to

Dry her tears wondering

Where in history

She lost her voice.”

Jasmin Kaur

 

Rosemary Shapiro-LiuRosemary Shapiro-Liu is the director of Triple Win Enterprises in Sydney, Australia, and the author of The Mentor Within. She is a facilitator, conference strategist and coach. In South Africa she was one of the National Directors of NICRO, and the national manager for Restorative Justice, and in Australia she works with thought leaders, social entrepreneurs and business authors. She is one of the founding contributors to Smallville.com.au for small business owners who think big.

Take Action If You Said #MeToo

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Speak Out member, Chipo. Photo by Alexa Sedge.

By Kathleen Dey

I appeal to anyone who posted or followed #MeToo on social media to join our I ACT Campaign and donate R100 every month to fund our free counselling service to rape survivors.

The #MeToo campaign was initially used by North American community organiser Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of a campaign to promote “empowerment through empathy” among black women who had experienced sexual abuse, particularly within underprivileged communities.

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Tarana Burke (via justbeinc.org)

It gained global momentum after accusations of sexual harrassment – and rape – were brought against Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Actress Alyssa Milano encouraged posting the phrase as part of an awareness campaign to show the scale of the problem.

She tweeted Tarana Burke’s call to action: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote #MeToo as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

According to Wikipedia the phrase was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours.

I am aware of so many women who posted #MeToo on social media platforms and told their stories of harassment, violence and abuse – and many more who were moved by the trend but for good reason did not post the hashtag or tell their painful stories. If each of these took action by donating R100 a month Rape Crisis, we could kick start the I ACT Campaign, a campaign designed to address some of the enormous helplessness and anger we feel when we see how widespread and severe the scale of the problem is. #MeToo demonstrated this only too well.

There were some strong posts from men in support of the women who posted #MeToo, many were shocked by the prevalence and some men said #MeToo as survivors themselves. This is a campaign that men can support just as well. What better way of showing support than a tangible gesture? Many can then say, “I ACT for women’s empowerment” and mean it.

Members of the LGBTQIA community could say an even stronger #MeToo having experienced the intersecting trauma of being sexually harassed and being targeted because of their sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity. Many have not posted because #MeToo did not recognise this but only saw violence through the eyes of women. The fact is there are many intersections in our society that most people are completely oblivious to. Black women might not have the luxury of posting #MeToo but many of the rape survivors we see at rape crisis experience these multiple forms of harassment. On behalf of all of them we say #MeToo and ask you all to say #I-ACT in return.

Just R100 ensures a one hour counselling session for a rape survivor including transport money if needed. In this space where survivors feel safe to tell their stories they find their own coping strategies, learn to move forward, make well informed decisions and connect more closely to others. Please take action to support them so we can all say I-ACT.

 

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Kathleen Dey is the Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

On #MeToo

By Sam Waterhouse

We are posting with different private meanings and experiences behind that phrase. Many of us are talking about rape, assault, and abuse as well as ‘harassment’. We are talking about sexual violence. We are publicly exposing something deeply personal, for some of us we know we are also being political, and in the posting we are being more socially connected about experiences that we mostly share in smaller spaces. If we share it at all. There is, even for me, some discomfort in the choice to #MeToo, I hesitated and waited – for what purpose? Am I going to hang this out on the line to be minimised, looked over, celebrated, commiserated, diminished, pitied? My personal and social meanings collide in the choice.

And then I saw women I perceive as powerful, who I respect and aspire to posting and I was enabled. #MeToo

I’m interested in seeing who posts and who doesn’t. I’m interested in who doesn’t because my Facebook is not only linked to feminists, to women who are alive to the scaffolding that holds sexual violence up and seek to name it, dismantle it and build networks of compassion and power. My Facebook people are also girls, women and men who live in other ways and who have lived sexual violence. Many of these are not participating in this public way. May you continue to do what keeps you safe, may some of you be emboldened, may you choose what’s best for you.

I’m interested in who reacts. On mine so far all women. On some other posts I see the smattering of woke men who perhaps understand better or who feel they have permission to react. So this seems to me to be another exercise of women speaking to women about something that men and our society creates. And I pragmatically see the value of women talking to women. There is power there. But I get pissed off because we are not posting this only for other women. Angry because I think most men are turning away from this pervasive reality and then also considering (generously?) maybe they don’t know if they can react or how to.

I’m interested in how I’ve reacted to posts and how I’ve felt about the reactions to mine. Depending on the content and my closeness to the person who posts I react differently. I do this because experiences of sexual violence do not invoke one set of static feelings. We have different meanings at different times. I think for many of us posting we have built strength around the experiences. For me the sad face is uncomfortable I don’t want people to be sad for me. I am not sad now. I didn’t post in sorrow. I posted with heart and with defiance. But I also know the sorrow and the loss and the sense of weakness and I know that for some you are posting – or not posting – with those feelings closer to the surface.

May we have these conversations more openly after this flash of activity.

 

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Sam Waterhouse works at the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute. She was a counselling volunteer at Rape Crisis in the mid 1990s and went on to run our court support project as an advocacy coordinator before continuing as an actvist against violence against women in a broad range of spaces including Facebook, where she originally posted this piece.