If the world relied on politicians for meaningful progress we’d still be in animal skins hunting rabbits. Individuals have always driven real change. And you cannot do it by email petition or Facebook group. You have to get out of the office or your home and into the world, you have to make the time, you have to get your hands dirty, you have to be inconvenienced, you need to take personal responsibility for the change you claim you want.

When he visited South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy said: “Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And, crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls.”

Those words, applied to men and women, can be used for every political action and every personal quest for transformation. You are helpless until you act. You are insignificant until you step forward. No one hears until you speak. The challenge is not to work on your own, but to inspire others to follow or to participate; as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change, you want”.

I was recently asked by a magazine to pen notes on what life had taught me. I asked my daughter what she felt she had learnt from me in the hope that it would provoke my thinking. She said she had learnt: “To give your children space and freedom and to expose them to different religions, cultures and beliefs, that is now an important part of who I am.” She also said she now understood: “The importance of sharing and when you can, try to assist others, but if you can’t you need to know the importance of saying no.”

In my notes to the magazine I observed that:

  • We become extra–ordinary when we as ordinary people use extra resources to achieve what others (and even we) believe are impossible goals.
  • Pain is God’s way of directing us to our destiny, we can ignore it or become trapped in self-pity (“why me” are the two most useless words in the world) or we can say, okay, God, I don’t know what it is that you want me to do but let me try and progress — and when we do, we do it with a positive attitude, never hating, always believing that we can achieve, always believing in ourselves.
  • I believe in the magnificence of the human spirit, the great reserves of courage that live in all of us, the compassion that when acted upon fills our hearts and is the foundation of happiness.
  • A sense of humour is important to keep you from strangling lousy customer service agents and it is also the spine of every good relationship.
  • Be humble without being a wimp.
  • Never, ever, ever discriminate it narrows your world, creates boundaries in your life and exposes your own insecurities.
  • Have an attitude of gratitude, every day give thanks and use that to work hard to protect this planet so that our children and their children can enjoy it too.
  • What does this have to do with rape and HIV?

    Everything. It determines how effectively we will cope if we are raped and at risk of HIV infection, or if we are HIV+. It determines whether I as a woman, will support those who are harmed or infected. It determines whether I will keep demanding justice or stay at home and whinge to my friends.

    After I was raped and stabbed in 1999 and began a global campaign for antiretrovirals for rape survivors — I said that rape was a significant transmitter of HIV — I was told by senior researchers everywhere that I was wrong. We now know that I was right, yet too little is being done to extend treatment and care to rape survivors to prevent HIV and the range of other sexually-transmitted illnesses rape survivors are at risk of after rape.

    The stigma of rape enables rapists and ensures that those harmed are the least likely to receive appropriate support from us, their friends or to experience effective police investigations anywhere in the world.

    The stigma of rape continues because we allow it.

    It drives me insane that after rape everyone runs around saying, “let’s get her to a counsellor”. We don’t need psychological counselling until at least six weeks after the rape because we haven’t internalised the situation yet. We are in big denial and profoundly traumatised — most of all by our risk of HIV. Yes, we need debriefing and that should take place quickly, ideally by a police officer but because an Aids-denialist president and the former police commissioner disbanded specialist sexual violence policing units, the sort of treatment a rape survivor will get from the cops is scandalous to put it mildly.

    I don’t know how many affidavits or statements I have taken from cops and written because they don’t have a clue of how to interview a traumatised individual. Police stations are given arrest quotas to fulfil and so our police force spend their time arresting foreigners instead of engaging in the slow painstaking investigations of serious crime including rape. And there is no doubt that a person who rapes is always involved in other crime whether theft, armed robbery, drunken driving, narcotics abuse; no matter how rich or how poor, they are involved in other crime — yet we still lack a national DNA database that could help us put away these hardened criminals.

    In the last two years I have not dealt with a single case — and I deal with 6 to 8 rape cases on average each week — this is not my job remember, I get no payment for it. I am a writer and media consultant and all my contact details are unlisted and yet people find me.

    In all those cases in the last two years I know of none where a perpetrator has been arrested as a result of police investigations.

    I know of only one instance where rapists were arrested and that was where a woman was gang-raped in her home on New Year’s Eve by three “friends” who gave her drugs and videotaped the rape and beating. In that instance, the men were arrested but police — 10 months later had not visited the crime scene nor taken statements from witnesses.

    Fiona Nicholson of the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme said they began noticing three years ago a trend in police officers not visiting crime scenes — why, because there is no intention to prosecute the crime. The Mail & Guardian and Carte Blanche have given evidence of either police raping (not a new trend) or failing to investigate rape to try and force the stats down — obviously it doesn’t because when rapists know they will not get punished, they rape more often and with greater violence.

    The New Year’s Eve case has been abandoned by the prosecution because there is, not surprisingly, not enough to convict the rapists. In that case, like many others I and many other rape counsellors are seeing, the rapists used condoms to try and prevent DNA evidence.

    In that instance the rapists flushed the condoms, but not in the case of a 69-year-old granny from Kagiso who was raped in September by two of six men who broke into her home. In that instance, the police, as usual, did not come to the crime scene. Her granddaughter carefully put the condoms in a paper bag and took them to the police. The Kagiso police told her the condoms — brimful of ejaculate — were of no use because they could not get fingerprints off them. The granddaughter still has those condoms in a fridge but it is impossible to get police to investigate this case.

    I asked rape organisations across the country in an informal survey two months ago if any of their cases had gone to court in the past two years. All replied NO. Carol Bower who used to head Rape Crisis and is now a very busy gender consultant said she believed this was part of a strategy to create an illusion of lower rape statistics.

    Well, it hasn’t worked because in 1994 there were 14 000 reported rapes and this year close to 80 000 reported rapes — almost a six-fold increase in 15 years.

    I believe that at least 20% of HIV infection is as a result of rape and if we effectively prosecute rapists and treat rape survivors we will cut HIV new transmission by at least 20% and create a society in which we all feel safer and in which trust is easier.

    In June, the Medical Research Council told us that one in four South African men had admitted raping someone and more than half said they had done this repeatedly. They questioned close to 2 000 men for that study.

    One in 20 said they had raped in the last year. Various organisations have published similar research over the last decade. Men freely admit to rape because they know 98% of them will never be put behind bars. Less than 15% of rape results in an arrest and less than 3% in a conviction.

    Last month details were released of research into almost 1 600 cases of rape in Gauteng which found that in 2003 only 3% of adult cases resulted in a conviction and 7% of children’s cases. A report on DNA was available in only 1.4% of cases but most often DNA was either not collected or not analysed. In 2003 we still had specialised police rape units. Police refused to give them more recent statistics.

    The cost of processing DNA is less than R500. If you consider the cost of having multiple perpetrators loose and involved in other crimes then one has to wonder where our values systems lie.

    Globally sexual violence is the world’s fastest growing crime and the one least likely to result in an effective conviction. Part of it is because women work hard to get equal rights in the workplace, but not as hard to protect our lives.

    Why is rape still the world’s most silent pandemic? Here is a little of what we need to do:

    Earlier I criticised the rush to get us to a psychologist after rape when first we should ensure that the physical health of a rape survivor is protected. There is no point looking after her mind if her body is at risk. She or he need immediate access to antiretrovirals to prevent HIV, either a penicillin shot or antibiotics to prevent a range of sexually-transmitted illnesses and the morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy. This nonsense that our health department has implemented that she has to go back each week to get the next week’s drugs is a further assault on the rape survivor and limits effective treatment and care.

    Most of our people are poor and cannot afford transport costs to hospitals, it creates further trauma. And it’s simply bad medicine. If she doesn’t take the course the risk of her becoming ill with HIV or an STD is high. So why do we not demand a change to these damaging regulations?

    Secondly, and this is NEVER done: ensure she and her partner or family know and understand post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). Details about post-traumatic stress should be given on pamphlets to every rape survivor and indeed every child in schools. This severely traumatised society needs help.

    The physical impact of PTSS needs to be explained — vomiting, abdominal pain, extreme weight loss in the first few weeks and after that often significant weight gain. Then there is the very severe psychological impact. This can include insomnia, mood swings, fear of public spaces or anything that reminds him or her of the rape whether smells, colours, sounds or places, a high likelihood of suicidal thoughts or acts, and a very high risk of addictive behaviour with regard to alcohol or drugs — despite this everyone rushes to put rape survivors on sleeping pills and anti-depressants.

    Again, this is bad medical practice, it ignores the dangers of post-traumatic stress and may cause worse long-term problems. We need sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication for no more than a week and then caring people to help us move forward.

    In counselling the practice of making rape survivors repeat the story over and over is not only pointless it is harmful. They need to learn how to move on in the world, not remain locked in rape.

    I am disturbed by the fact that in all the schools I speak at — in all communities — very high numbers of children are present during burglaries, hijackings, are tied up in armed robberies, see their parents beaten, murdered or raped and yet we don’t have extensive programmes for post-traumatic stress in our schools. And we wonder why this is such an angry, violent society.

  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    Charlene Smith

    Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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