It is June in Durban, the city of perpetual summer. A diverse group of people come together to explore the role of grass roots advocacy in bringing social change. A very important part of this group are representatives from sexual violence support groups. I have the opportunity to get to know a few of these women better.
Six women. So very different; Adolescent to grandmother; doctorate student and women who are nearly illiterate; South Africans and refugees.
Initially their lives and their stories seem very different, but soon it becomes clear that there is much that unifies them.
Hope* is nearly forty, busy with her PhD in Gender Studies. She heard about the support group at a Women’s Bible Study.
‘I always said I am fine,’ she says, ‘I didn’t feel comfortable to speak about my personal life. You have a secret life that you hide and that no one sees.’ She said that no-one knew that she had been raped, not even her husband. She feared ‘being caught in the negative. She says that she knows what her husband’s views are about those that have been raped. Like so many others in her community, he would say:
- ‘It is your fault
- You have demons
- It is your fault
- You were not respectable
- IT IS YOUR FAULT’
Hope* shared this feeling before she joined the support group. She said that it is easy to feel this way if this is the message that your community constantly conveys, and if you fear that speaking out may ‘cause you to stand alone.’
This changes, she said, ‘the moment someone accepts you.’ She explains how easy the welcoming and accepting nature of the 10 members of the survivor group made her feel: ‘I was not even ashamed to tell the details. It was as if I had power.” This power grew as she could release the pain and memories in her heart, to the extent that she now runs her own support group.
Hope* feels that the church has a powerful role to play in supporting people who have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Her pastor supported her; he invited all the women to stay behind after a church service and allowed her an opportunity to speak about her plans to start the group: ‘I explained about sexual violence and about the value of support group, and of the 30 ladies, 15 stayed and started the group. We share our stories and our social life. We become friends and share all our needs. We look at how we can improve our lives and find activities that keep us connected. We even started a “stokvel” (community savings club) with business development in mind.’
Her feelings about the church and the role of the church in sexual and gender-based violence are not only positive, though: ‘Most of the women in our church are beaten by their husbands, even in church. Not one of the group has disclosed to her husband. People cry, they cry!’
Hope* verbalises a number of the reasons why she thinks people are not willing to speak about their experiences at church. ‘We think Church is holy and we cannot associate with this GBV, but it is happening! If you go to the church and say your husband beats you, the pastor will say it is just a misunderstanding, you will be asked to pray more or submit more. We know violence is a sin, so no one in the church does that! They support those who are abused outside, but do not accept that it is in here. They think that men who abuse their wives are out there and need to be saved.’
She also has clear ideas about what should change for churches to play a meaningful role in addressing gender violence:
- Speak directly, have a sermon or activity
- Have a special sermon, name rape and violence specifically in sermon
- We Will Speak Out SA can assist to give pastors resources, as they do not know how to start.
She says it is a power and joy to share with the survivor group what she has learned and received. She has also changed her view on rape: ‘Now I see rape as a crime and people who are raped as being forced to keep silence because of shame.’
Hope* says she has come a long way, even though she is still not able to share with her husband that she has been raped.
‘I am a survivor’, she says, ‘because I accept my story and want to make sure that I help others.’
Sindisiwe is 27, HIV positive and the mother of two. She left school in grade 9 at the age of 15, when she fell pregnant.
She shares that she came from a poor home with little support and that she made poor choices.
She was scared to disclose her HIV status – even with partners – and continued to have sex without condoms.
Two things changed her life.
‘I was so scared to tell my boyfriend (about my HIV status), I thought he would reject me,’ she said, ‘But then he told me that he was positive! I decided why would we leave each other – he was honest and we can rather walk together.”
And then a friend introduced her to the support group and to the work of WWSOSA.
She explains the challenges of her community: ‘There is a high rate of rape, even grannies and men, children. I decided I have to speak: Some of us committing suicide; Some of us protecting boyfriends. We must stop this!’
‘The first thing that made me speak – my daughter was raped when she was two by her uncle. The community said the we should keep this under our shoes (keep this within the family, secret).’
This traumatic event triggered an older memory: “I was 12 or 13, my best friend was having a party, it was night. Her uncle came and told me granny called me. He walked with me to the gates, it was far, and he started to touch me and tried to force things. I ran away and told his mother. I was nearly raped at that time. I thought I was healed, but one day I met him and all the pain came back. When I asked him why (he did this), he said it was because I was the most beautiful. He tried to make me the guilty one, but once I could talk about it, it brought healing.’
Sindiswe says her involvement in the support group helped her deal with both these traumas; ‘We call our group “Phepisa”. It means “We have wounds; we are trying to heal that wound.” The support group make me grow and grow and grow. (It) Give me a mind that says…I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.”
I asked her what helped her to heal:
- ‘To see young people come to the group and hearing that others have bigger problems than I, this makes the wound come smaller and smaller
- Start to talk to others about your story
- We can walk this way and heal as we walk and talk
- And then you can see that you can change
- I was committing suicide three times because I thought my mother hated me, through the ‘We Will Speak Out’ my mother and I connected again and she told me: “I did not hate you, I tried to keep you under my wings.”
- I want youngsters to know what they can do with their life – Some of us go to clubs and they drink and they don’t know what they do.’
Sindiswe is very ambivalent about the role of the church in gender based violence: ‘It makes you feeling better… when you are singing, then you feel better, but when you go back the anger comes back. The pastor and priest only preach and sing and ask money, but they don’t recognise people with problems. I am going with hope and hoping things change, take my sins to God, but others come for gossiping, speaking about what you are wearing etc. In church you come to put all your heavy things down that you cannot talk about – but there is no thing that goes if you do not talk.’
She is not ambivalent about her involvement in the support group, though: ‘I go there with the hope that my problem will still get smaller and smaller. The people there, I feel “You are my sister, you are my brother.” I am excited to see them. You know that today you will meet your sister, your brother, your mother.’
She speaks often about how much she has grown and how the role of the support group has helped her to start to dream again. She says that her dream is to be a good example in her community.
‘Sometimes we keep quiet. I would like my community’s HIV rates go down and (to) talk with the young people to stop this.”
Clare and Yvette
Clare*(38) and Yvette(28) are both refugees. They prefer to see me together, and talk in tandem, interrupting each other and struggling to communicate in English.
Clare* and Yvette also emphasises the feeling of freedom their participation in the support group has brought. Clare* said: ‘At the group I listened to others and that motivated me to talk. Now I can go to other groups and be free to tell them my story.’ And Yvette echoed: ‘You feel free. For me, now, I am not shy to talk, I can talk everywhere. In the group there are women like me.’
They again emphasise the negative community messages about people who have been sexually abused or raped: ‘We were shy because if you tell your story, in our culture if they know something like that happened, they say it is because you wanted it. It will be hard for you to get a fiancé. They don’t give you respect.’
They emphasise the emotional and physical support of their support group, but also mention that it is not possible for all women to be part of such a process:
- We meet, if someone has a problem we go and visit her, comfort, talk and council – we support each other
- Maybe some get tired, she is a single mother without job or her husband stops her
- When we speak we get healed, but some people feel they need more, they maybe need something for food
- We invite someone and tell them how it works
- We have a shared background, hear story first and know what to advice
- We help with understanding the steps of protection order
- Tell them to be patient and love yourself
- You can talk to teenager and help them understand- I advise her that a daughter must be a friend to her mother and tell her.
Although they are very clear about the benefits of the support group, they also seem to be frustrated at times by their inability to provide more assistance.
Jean* is also in her 40s, and a refugee.
She shares the fear of sharing about her rape: ‘I can tell my mother everything, but not when I am abused.’ She feels that although there is the possibility to get help at home, it may not practically be possible: ‘So you have to stay quiet.’ She also speaks of the need for women to protect their children: ‘Better me I can suffer to keep my children be good.’
She heard about the support group, and said: “It was first time to hear that you can share the story of being raped.” The group she joined is called ‘healing heart’. This motivated her: ‘I was having a lot of pain in my heart and I wanted to join them so that I can heal my heart.’
She feels that it was easier to join the group in South Africa, and that it would have been more difficult in her home country. She also has an interesting perspective on cultural differences when dealing with gender-based violence: ‘For the Zulu people it is easier, they feel no shame.’
She emphasises the relationships in the support group, as well as the practical help and support: ‘I learn something new when I go to the group – LOVE. If you can’t love someone you can’t tell them what you feel in your heart. You develop trust in the group. We are carrying the burden – it help if someone had the same experience. We helping each other when someone is sick or if they lose a partners, we have “stokvel” (savings club) to help.’ She also mentioned that they meet with other groups from time to time.
She describes many changes after joining the support group. Even right at the beginning of her involvement she notes: ‘The first time I spoke about my story it feels as if there is a release in my heart. As if something is changing.’ Later on she says: ‘It make me change to be open – I can speak whatever I want in the group and that gives me courage to speak outside.’
After the many years of secrecy, this was however clearly not just an instant change. Jean* said: ‘From 12 years to 25 years I walked with this secret. It does not go straight, slowly slowly, the more I get to other people the more I changed. Before I used to think about what happened all the time and cried, it felt as if I was carrying a mountain, but now I feel free.’
Once again, there are also still many challenges. I asked Jean* what makes her a survivor. Her answer was clear: ‘I am a victim if something happens, I am a survivor when I start making decisions.’ However, she also told me about her sister having marital problems. I asked her what advice she gave her sister. In spite of verbalising the importance of making decisions, her response was: ‘You have to respect your husband, do everything he wants and pray.’
Thandi is 55 year old.
I asked her how she became involved in the support group: ‘The daughter of my sister was raped three times. She is a slow learner and does not understand what happened to her, I feel so sore in my heart, so sorry. Some ladies from UKZNCC asked us about our churches and if there is someplace we can speak. We tried to talk at the church, but the pastor didn’t like you to talk about rape and domestic violence, the only want to speak about the Bible. The ladies told us about We Will Speak Out. Tearfund and WWSO taught us that this is in the Bible!’
She said that she was very surprised that there were examples of gender-based violence in the Bible.
She was invited to join a support group and said that the trust in the group enabled her to talk: ‘I feel free, because they open their hearts to us, they talk to us about what happened. We cry, we laugh, we work together and then we become friends.’
But the experience of abuse was not only that of a family member. Hearing about the stories of others, and being supported when she spoke about the rape of her niece, she also got the courage to face her own past: ‘I was working for a man who raped me. I did not say anything. When you are talking about rape, people think you were making that man to rape. That about rape, it made me not thinking straight, I decided to leave my job because I felt I was abused. That took my chances away. But if I talk about rape in the group, we know it is the same, we are in the same place. After 30 years I feel free.’
This feeling of freedom has had profound effects for Thandi. She feels empowered: ‘I talk to my family know, I know what to say.’ She still has many regrets, and feels that her confusion and stress after the rape had an effect on the rest of her life and limited her development: ‘Every time I am passing that place I think “What if you did not get raped? Sometimes I think I would have been somebody else.” Even this is being addressed by her experience: ‘Maybe I am getting something back, something from the Ma Thandi I would have been if I was not raped.’
Her experience is also encouraging her to empower others: ‘In the beginning I brought my niece and spoke on her behalf, but I learnt that she should speak for herself.’
Thandi also views herself as a survivor and not a victim: ‘We Will Speak Out and Tearfund helps me to be a survivor. We must not stay as victims; we must move forward. We are not crying now, we are talking about things going forwards.
Six women – very different, and very much the same. They share the pain and shame of sexual and gender based violence, but they also share the joy and strength of moving from victims to survivors, of finding their voices, of growing and developing.
It is clear from these few stories that the support groups brought the opportunity for these women to release the burden of secrecy they have been carrying with them and to grow and develop their voice.
*Pseudonymns were used