This is an excerpt from the first of many journals I wrote to document my six-month volunteer work at a rape and abuse rescue/crisis center in South Africa in 2009. My personal healing throughout this time, as well as what I witnessed and learned in South Africa, led me to organize Tough Angels, a non-profit dedicated to empowering community circles to protect women and children from rape.
For more information, please see www.toughangels.org
June, 2009 ~
I am in one of the poorest areas of South Africa. It also claims one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and rapes against women and children. I volunteer in a rescue/crisis center for raped children. Calls come in night and day asking for our help. They come from hospitals, police stations, schools, and orphanages. Sometimes these calls manifest on the front doorstep. Women and children are looking to be rescued from rape and sodomy. It is impossible to comprehend the nightmares endured in this country, yet I find myself here, tied to these truths that cannot be ignored.
The constructs of patriarchal society are deep-seeded here. Men rule the households, businesses, streets and nighttime. There is an ingrained current of belief toward men’s God-given right to have their sexual needs met, by whatever means necessary. Often, their wives are lost to AIDS, at which time sex generally becomes the children’s responsibility. There is no age limit; I have witnessed many cases of rape that involve babies. The poverty in this area alone feels devastating, but it quickly becomes the background “noise” when I have seen what these children suffer at the hands of their fathers, uncles, friends, neighbors, and their country’s paradigms. Additionally, I have been around many men who feel no remorse or who take no responsibility for these actions, and often brag about the numbers of women they have taken sex from.
The rescue/crisis center where I volunteer has several women on staff, 2 drivers, and a steady rotation of Dutch volunteers who come in for a few weeks at a time. In addition, there are 6 Zulu women at the center who have been trained extensively in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. We are kept so busy that most of the women operate on little sleep. However, in the midst of this, I have felt incredible kindness and love from the staff, and I have witnessed this outpouring to the women and children that they support. The staff here holds nothing back.
The first and most important policy of the center is to rescue a child from immediate danger. When sexual abuse is confirmed, the child is either transported to the hospital or police. Among many other supplies, we take the child a cloth bear, a permanent marker, and band-aids. The arms and legs on the bear move and this is how the child discloses what has happened to them. They draw on the bear and it is an effective tool as it spares them the humiliation of showing the authorities what has occurred on and within their own bodies. The bears are an arresting testament to the stories of their experiences. If penetration has been determined, the child is given an Antiretroviral (ARV) drug. The treatment is time sensitive, and must be administered within 72 hours of the rape. It lowers the risk of contracting HIV by nearly 80%. The trouble is, children are told to keep quiet and they are often fearful to say anything. Most children don’t tell until someone finds signs of it or their injuries are so brutal, it’s undeniable.
How does one begin to unravel the rationale and cultural dilemma of rape in South Africa and beyond? I believe the answer is one by one. One by one, first support the children… one by one, enter into dialogue with men… and one by one, offer culturally appropriate resources to empower the women. I believe the healing of this country will begin to take place with the women. It might take a few generations but I pray they will begin to catch glimpses of what rising up looks like. My wish for these women is that they can believe in a safer life, feel the realities of protecting their children from rape, and come to know what being respected and loved by their partner feels like. I have a glimmer of hope.