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On April 1,1999,multiple award-winning journalist,Charlene Smith was raped at knife point in her Johannesburg home. Despite her traumatic experience, Charlene chose to speak up about rape and sexual violence and HIV/AIDS using her experience as launch pad. Apparently, Charlene has  made even greater strides than she ever made before the attack by the rapist.

‘Im an emotional Libran, a passionate South African, a devoted mother, a scatter-brained friend and a pretty good cook who loves music and dancing. In the beginning, I thought the rapist had taken the Charlene I loved the most with him; in part he did, but I really like the person she is now. Thank you God for letting me live, to be with my children, to rediscover the love of my birth family…”

Smith:"The rapist wants me to be like him,but I wont allow it and my revenge is speaking out"

In the last eight years, Charlene has led an unrelenting albeit successful campaign against sexual violence and abuse of women and children and has even taken on greater roles as AIDS activist and trauma counselor. A prolific writer and author, Charlene has written  over 5 books many of them on issues of rape, domestic violence and gender justice.

Charlene took out time to speak with Kingsley Obom-Egbulem on sexual violence, her experience with rape and the place of responsible fatherhood in eliminating violence against women.

The issues of rape and indeed sexual abuse and violations are considered by several people as abstractions or “something happening to “them” and not me or us”. How close is this menace to the average woman or man?
It’s very close. In SA, one in two women get raped. One in 4 girls under the age of 15 according to Childline and one in 5 boys under the age of 15.

A lot of rape survivors had vibrant lives, full of dreams and aspirations until their paths crossed with that of a rapist. But you seem to have even made more giant strides and achieved more in life  since you were raped. How would you explain this?
It’s my revenge.  You see, rapists want us to either be cowed and scared, or to be people like them, people who hate without reason. I have no interest in allowing a rapist to change me, in allowing a rapist to rule me, in allowing a rapist to win.  So I don’t forgive because some things are not forgivable, but I also don’t hate because then I would be like the rapist. I have what I call Positive Revenge, living a better, happier, more successful life than before.  I used the rape to help me focus on my life, what I wanted, what I needed, to carefully build the sort of person I wanted to be, to have the sort of future I believed I deserved. Not the rapists future.

But also in speaking out, in helping others, I discovered great abilities and strengths within myself, I kept surprising myself with what I could achieve. By not hating I revealed to myself the huge power of the positive, the fact that most people are good and want to help – you just need to know how to ask and to know too that if you ask with an honest and humble heart you are more likely to achieve than if everything is just about you.  With me it has always been what I could help achieve for all rape survivors and in turn have been rewarded in many personal ways too.

Looking back today do you think that incident could have been avoided? Was there anything you could have done to prevent your being raped?

Smith:"The average woman has a future too bright for a rapist to terminate or destroy,so we need to pick up our lives and try to succeed,speak out as a form of revenge"

Nothing.

When a woman is raped especially outside her house, the thinking most times especially in Africa is that she caused it. Can a woman actually attract a rapist consciously or unconsciously?
Even this question makes me so angry I could scream. Should we say that banks by opening their doors attract robbers, so they should keep them locked? Should we say that every time you carry money it invites an attacker to hit you over the head and steal it? No, we would be considered damn fools and the same goes for suggesting if a woman leaves the house she causes rape. Good God!!! What next?  If a woman cannot walk safe then what are men suggesting about their own weakness? Their own inadequacies?

I usually say if I lay naked on the road no one has the right to harm me.  I stick to that. But these days I am getting too many women raped after they have gone out and got blind drunk – if you drink heavily, you’re asking for trouble – you’re asking to get knocked down if you walk, to die in a traffic accident and you make it easier for rapists to attack you. Women need to show far more respect for themselves.  You cannot behave badly and expect to remain safe.

What has dressing, drugs and alcohol got to do with rape as some men often blame external factors for raping a woman.
No good man would blame the way a woman dresses or behaves on a criminal taking advantage and raping her.  Why is it that men can run naked across soccer fields and never fear they might get raped? Or get blind drunk and fear they will get raped? But globally the statistics with regard to young men show us anyhow that a young man aged 15 to 29 is more likely to die violently than at any stage of his life and in 90% of cases alcohol will be part of that cause.

Husbands or partners of rape survivors are often affected by rape-related stigma and these men often tend to worsen the matter by behaving coldly and often ending the relationship. Is this normal or  a gross sign of weakness?
A person who ends a relationship with a woman raped because she is raped is not a man, I find great difficulty in even calling such a shameful creature a person.

So what form of healing can men provide when a loved one or friend is raped? How can men reduce the pain, shame and feeling of guilt?
By listening. By being there. By being clever about sex – loving touch is often sexier than penetration only … Take is slow and discover the pleasures of a trusting relationship, a content woman and great sex. Corinthians 13 has the best explanation of love and loving I’ve read and
that is all that is needed, follow those guidelines.

The man who attacked you was arrested prosecuted and jailed. Did that contribute in any way to your recovery?

I was glad he was  put away and that he could not harm anyone else; yes. I also
did not have to fear that he might come back.

As a trauma counselor, how traumatic is a situation where a rape survivor indentifies the man who raped her ,reports to the police, he is arrested and the next day released?
Exceptionally traumatic! Especially for children rape. I and all counselors experience profound difficulty with children raped. When this happens they start believing no adult can be trusted and this often leads to profoundly delinquent and even suicidal behaviour.

What’s the fate of gender justice in South Africa with the emergence of Jacob Zuma as leader of the African National Congress(ANC) and possibly the next president of South Africa considering his antecedents as a man who was indicted of rape but mysteriously escaped being sentenced?

Gender justice in South Africa started off well in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, we made rapid gains, all of which began reversing as rapidly after the election of Thabo Mbeki in 1999.It is up to us as women to stand up and make our views known, we will get who we are not prepared to accept if we fail to speak out.

The statistics on rape and sexual violation of girls and women in South  Africa remains the highest in the world. Has this always been the case? How did the world get to this point?

Rape stats have been high in the two decades or so that they are not been taken. But globally rape is the crime least likely to result in an arrest, least likely to result in an effective conviction. Globally a woman is more likely to be murdered by someone she loves. In every country of the world a woman or child is most likely to be physically or verbally abused, hit, beaten or killed by someone she loves and should be able to trust. Sexual trafficking is now a crime more profitable than drug smuggling. Sexual violence is the fastest growing crime in the world. I think that the breakdown of family values, absent fathers and overworked mothers who yell at their children and hit them all help contribute to this and of course a disinterested police force and criminal justice system in every country of the world.

Are these ills a reflection of the growing failure of fatherhood as the world continues to produce absentee fathers and boys who lack proper parenting and mentoring?

Absolutely. Parents are failing by the day…and a parent who fails a child is creating a burden for generations to come. Robert Morrell and Linda Richter, in Baba: Men and Fatherhood in South Africa, observe that in Umlazi, Durban, for example, only 7,000 of 67,000 people ordered by courts to pay maintenance complied in 2002. In the same year, district courts received 372,000 complaints of maintenance default in the Durban area alone (a city of around 1 million citizens). In South Africa, 59 percent of children live in households without fathers. Less than 5 percent of those ordered to pay maintenance actually pay.

Morrell and Richter noted too that 25 percent of children are sexually abused each year (most often by incest). Only 20 percent of fathers who were not married to the child’s mother at the time of the infant’s birth were in contact with the child by the time he or she reached age 11. Those figures for South Africa are alarming, but across the world many parents fail their children and it has led to an explosion of youth violence and the statistics for youth violence are equally staggering.

According to the Centers for Disease Control(CDC), 5 ,570 young people -aged 10 to 24 were murdered in 2003 in the US – an average of 15 each day. Of these victims, 82 per percent were killed with firearms. These figures are outrageous and a severe indictment on parents, and what is worse, they are reflected across the world.

And in a nationwide survey of high school students, about six percent reported not going to school on one or more days in the thirty days preceding the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to and from school. And so children become further isolated from opportunity because the parents of some have no control over their children. And control is not something you obtain by punishment or threat; it’s achieved through love, consistent caring and attention, by always being available to listen and praising more than criticizing.

What can a country like Nigeria do to check incidents of rape and all forms of abuse of women?
Nigeria and every country can work hard to improve the rights of women and children. If women are safe, children are safe. It can ensure that any crime in which an individual of either gender is harmed is effectively investigated and prosecuted. We all need to treat each other with greater care and respect in our day to day lives.

Sexual Violence and its toll on Public Health

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“I have all these things going around my head. But my biggest fear is HIV. Every time I think about the rape I think I could be infected with HIV. I have no peace. And if the baby has HIV, what am I going to do?

-Woman, 22 years old, raped when she was three months pregnant, Burundi.

This was one of the fallout of the war in Burundi: sexual violence and its  frightening consequences: the spread of HIV, defilement of children and a devastation of homes and relationships.

Sexual violence is a violation of human rights and a serious public health problem. You only need to listen to survivors of this heinous crime to appreciate its implication on public health. There is an ongoing debate to determine whether or not sexual violence has public health implication. But while this debate rages on, a careful study of  the factors driving the HIV prevalence  and other sexually transmitted diseases(STIs) in Nigeria should be enough to take an informed stand on the need to address rape, incest, child sexual abuse and other  forms of sexual violence.

According to the World Health Organisation(WHO) a wide range of physical, mental, sexual and reproductive, and maternal health problems can result from violence against women

Based on accounts of survivors, there is no gainsaying that sexual violence has a profound impact on physical and mental health, both immediately and many years after the assault. According to the Sexual Violence Research Initiative(SVRI), “ sexual violence to date has received insufficient attention from researchers, policy-makers and programme designers and it has been a long struggle to have it recognised as a legitimate public health issue.”

Sexual violence is devastating in any setting; survivors often experience guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, tension, an exaggerated startle response, depression, anger, impaired memory and concentration, and/or rapid mood swings. These disorders have grave implications on the health of the survivor and those who depend on them like children and subordinates.

Perhaps, it against this background that the right environment should be encouraged for survivors to speak out and get the right care and support.

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