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

RGorgens

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

 

Advertisements

Take Action If You Said #MeToo

23622383_1204116809687854_4631260901422809178_n

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.

20xp-metoo1-master768

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.

 

img_0625_1

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

Help Us Build a Culture of Consent

I have a vision of a South Africa where women feel safe in their communities. But can you truly imagine it?

I can’t. At Rape Crisis we see the most extreme result of discrimination against women every day. We see a woman after a man has raped her. In the immediate aftermath, or some months later, or after years and years of isolating silence. A silence built on the stigma of being a rape survivor. On the fear of being blamed for wearing a short skirt, or for being out after dark, for being drunk, or for changing her mind in the middle of a sexual encounter. In South Africa these myths are strong enough and the stigma is high enough to stand in the way of this vision.

We believe that the best way to challenge these myths and build a new set of beliefs based on mutual respect for consent is to support communities so that their capacity to address the problem of rape is strengthened. We believe that doing this with teenagers while they are still at school means they are more likely to challenge their own ways of thinking and take that challenge to their peers. Teenagers love to challenge the adult norm.

Monique is a Rape Crisis trained peer educator at Athlone High School. She completed a course that allowed her to support other learners at her school who needed help if they had been raped or sexually assaulted and were too afraid to tell an adult. It also taught her different ways of challenging rape culture among her peers and teaching them new ways of thinking, a new attitude and a new norm. To celebrate Youth Day 16 June 2017 she wrote a blog for us.

“Being a peer educator is a responsibility that I need to fulfil with the utmost seriousness. I am proud to be a peer educator,” she said.

20161208_121

Obstacle course at the Peer Educators’ camp in Simonstown December 2016. Photograph by Alexa Sedge.

The course kicks off with a well-known exercise called the River of Life. It is designed to help participants tell the story of their lives in order to get to know one another at a deeper level and, in sharing this experience as a group, to develop a bond as a team.

“Fear immediately settled in me. Not because I had to speak in front of 21 strangers but because I had to show others who I really was. I had to show others all the things which made my childhood not so pleasant: all the things that I had locked away and although I wanted to throw away the key, I couldn’t. So there I was, revealing what I had kept inside for years – it was scary. I hated the fact that I had to be vulnerable. However, as each of my peers went up, I could see that we all had a dark past and that sunshine was scarce. What I learnt from that activity was that we need to scratch open our old wounds in order for them to heal properly. I realised that in order for me to help others, I had to help myself first.”

Empowerment starts within. Each facilitator on this course is a trained Rape Crisis volunteer. They go through a similar journey of confronting their fears as they learn to carry the huge responsibility of taking a group of young people on a journey fraught with intense emotions. But if we think of how damaging it is when an entire community believes even just one myth about women, about gender non-conforming people or about rape then we can see how serious it really is to make the attempt to challenge that myth.

“That activity made me realise something else as well: that’s what rape survivors have to go through when telling complete strangers about their traumatic experience, trusting others with what they would perhaps have kept to themselves.”

20161208_171

Photograph by Alexa Sedge

“Throughout this programme, session by session, I learnt to trust others and I learnt of the stigma related to those being raped and how they are judged. I also learnt many things about HIV and AIDS and the stigma related to those who are positive. I learnt of our rights, our responsibilities and the rights of survivors.”

If you would like to support the journey of a peer educator like Monique please donate here or share this post with someone you think might want to contribute.

“Being part of the Rape Crisis family has been really great for me. We laugh together, cry together, and share a lot of memories. I want to thank the facilitators for doing a super job. Keep inspiring others and moulding new leaders. Although my course is complete, my journey as a peer educator has just begun.”

Please help us promote a culture of safety in our schools or sign up to get updates about this and other projects at Rape Crisis. Because challenging just one myth helps to challenge the culture that gave birth to it; the same culture that gives rise to discrimination and violence against women.

Thank you so much for being part of the process of building a culture of consent.

 

Making Change as a Rape Crisis Peer Ed

Being a peer educator (peer ed) is so much more than just a label that was given to me because I completed a course. It’s a responsibility that I need to fulfill with the utmost seriousness. Many might feel that being a peer ed is a burden; I see it as a privilege.

I, Monique, am a Rape Crisis Peer Educator and I am proud hereof. When starting this program, I was unaware of the impact it would have on me. I must admit when entering this programme, I was anxious and scared to an extent. Being around a group of ‘strangers’ made me a bit uneasy.

20161208_121

Obstacle course at the Peer Ed camp in Simonstown. Pic: Alexa Sedge.

I can remember when we were told to do our ‘River of Life’ activity – fear immediately settled in me. Not because I had to speak in front of 21 ‘strangers’ but because I had to show others who I really was. I had to show others all the things which made my childhood not so pleasant: all the things that I had locked away and although I wanted to throw away the key, I couldn’t. So there I was revealing what I had kept inside for years – it was scary. I had hated the fact that I had to be vulnerable. However, as each of my peers went up, I could see that we all had a dark past and that sunshine was scarce. What I learnt from that activity was that we need to scratch open our old wounds in order for them to heal properly. I realised that in order for me to help others, I had to help myself first. That activity made me realise something else as well: that’s what rape survivors have to go through when telling complete strangers about their traumatic experience, trusting others with what they would perhaps have kept to themselves.

20161208_171

Athlone Peer Eds Pic: Alexa Sedge

Throughout this programme, I learnt something valuable from each session. I learnt to trust others which is something I do not often do. When we did role plays, I learnt of the stigma related to those being raped and how they are judged. I also learnt many things about HIV and AIDS and the stigma related to those who are positive. I learnt of our rights, responsibilities, and the rights of survivors. We were given many worksheets throughout, which we had to read, but personally the worksheets on how to help and assist survivors were the most important. There was a lot of information that was given to us, from contraceptives to our menstrual cycle, but the most important thing I learnt was that rape is a serious offence. I therefore want to be part of the change because many cases go unreported.

Being part of the Rape Crisis family has been really great for me. We laugh together, cry together, and share a lot of memories. I want to thank the facilitators for doing a super job. Keep inspiring others and molding new leaders. Although my course is complete, my journey as a peer ed has just begun.

Monique Booysen 

Monique is one of our Athlone high school Peer Educators. She is an active change-maker, challenging myths and stereotypes and changing attitudes around rape. 

 

Our Peer Education programme is made possible through the generous support of Oxfam Germany and BMZ.