One Monday morning I received a frantic phone call from a friend whose 9-year old niece had been raped by a neighbour. The family reported the rape at the local police station that is at Ga-Kgapane in Bolobedu area. Three days later the rapist was still casually waltzing around the street as if what he did can be pardoned by an apology. Sincerest apologies were offered to the victim’s family. In the end an apology from the rapist’s family is the only justice the 9 year old and her family got. Police failed to apprehend him or visit the family to take their statements. This despite the fact that the suspected had raped a child before and had got away with it. Everyone in the community knows this, I was told. Shortly before my friend’s niece was raped the same man is said to have tried to rape a six year old toddler. Fortunately for her she escaped when a little boy saw the man taking off his pants while the girl lay spread on the bed. The boy screamed and the would-be rapist got a fright and fled. But not for long it would seem, he came right back and he raped again.
I remember the opinions that were offered in our newsroom at the time. They ranged from blaming the community for complicity to pointing fingers at parents for not keeping their children under 24 hours surveillance. It annoyed me how quick people were willing to excuse the rapist.
During our conversations I could detect my friend’s feelings of helplessness. Mine were sufficiently hidden. I calmed her down and promised to help with follow ups to the police. I uttered a little prayer. When dealing with the police one needs all the help they can get. After a week of following up through emails, phone calls and smses no one from the police or Limpopo’s department of safely and community liaison bothered, no help was forthcoming. Each phone call that yielded no solution, each email or SMS that went without reply felt like a kick to my stomach.
Just when we were ready with our last attempt to direct attention to what was happening through a community radio station, the child’s aunt phoned and appeal with me to let it go. They were not prepared for a long drawn battle to get justice. She assured me that the family wanted to focus on their child’s recovery and counselling. Going back and forth with the police was proving to be too traumatic for them. I respected their decision and the privacy of child. I stopped pushing. I moved on inspite of my feeling of anger, hurt, frustration and guilt at not being able to help a little girl who had her innocence stolen from her.
Placing the blame – our mothers, ourselves, our society
For a while it appeared that I was over this incident. Sadly it came flooding back to my mind by an article I came across in Move magazine while visiting a friend two months later. The trigger was a story about a 22 year old Phindile Khumalo who was raped by her teacher when she was 14 years old. Her crime was in trusting someone who she looked up to as a mentor and her teacher. I read her story and saw myself in every detail that lead to her being drugged and raped. At that age I was just as trusting to people I looked up to, whether they be a teacher from school or any local adult I considered an uncle. Familiar and older persons in most communities are either uncles or aunts to most children. No one warns you that they might get raped by your uncle, teacher or even your neighbour you have know all your life. I think this as natural, no one anticipate any sort of sexual violence especially from people they know and trust.
Our mothers did not raise us to see a rapist in every man we come across. I found myself in the middle of an ugly exchange with my friend who blamed Phindile’s mother for landing her daughter in a situation that resulted in her rape. Phindile’s naivety could have apparently been avoided should she have been told not to trust any men, so said my friend. The fact that she kept insisting that this was her opinion with an air of superiority and self assurance woke me up to the danger with opinions. They are everywhere and everyone can afford to have one.
Suppose a woman has no mother to blame what would stop people from locating a reason so that they can place the blame anywhere except where it really it belongs- with the rapists. Isn’t this the reason why some people go as far as questioning what a woman was wearing, her prior behaviour etc. Such attitudes should be unnerving for anyone who cherishes their freedom and their right to be.
Self blame is another reason why some victims of sexual crimes rather suffer in silence than speaking out against crime committed against them through no faults of their own out of fear of reactions. I shudder to think of what lies buried inside those victims and how it creeps up each time they are faced with scathing opinions. It’s bad enough to think of women who have to deal with police who don’t have a clue on how to deal properly with rape cases. For some victims their pain includes having to face the rapist every day. The power of public opinions is something most people have underestimated.
Somehow I cannot shake the nudging feeling that by placing blame in victims or their circumstances one is implicitly saying they must accept what happens to them as punishment.
Freedom of speech vs. harm to others
I respect each person’s right to have their own opinion. More respects to women like Phindile who work out the courage to speak out and agree to have their faces put behind their names. Our justice system needs serious reforms that will enable it to deal adequately with sexually violence and send a strong message to rapists. This is a progressive right. While those progressive steps are being taken I stand with those who are forever challenging a mentality that justifies rape in our communities. Fighting recrimination of rape victims might be the only justice some people will ever know.
The thing with opinions is that everyone has them. In South Africa I can conclude that when it comes to rape other people’s point of views is exactly like having salt added to an open wound. It can be intensely painful to listen whether one is a prior victim of rape or just an “overly sensitive female” like I have been accused I am.
We live in a democratic society. I am learning to subdue my emotions and try not to wreak vocal havoc each time someone attempts to rationalize why some women deserve sexual violence more than others. The bottom line though, is that rape cannot be explained away. Ensuring freedom of speech is paramount, but I wish that people would make the effort to be a little more informed about the impact of their speech.