Thirty “conquerors” from NPO Community Cohesion’s psycho-social support programme gathered for a high tea at Hout Bay library last week as their contribution to the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign.
In what proved to be an emotional gathering on Friday December 1, survivors of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence shared their stories and explained the varied though similar paths they had taken to seek help to overcome their trauma.
Much of their inspiration to speak out was drawn from guest speaker, CapeTalk presenter Linzi Bourhill, herself a rape survivor who continues to work with victims of sexual crimes and abuse in Cape Town’s townships.
Ms Bourhill was raped by two men while attending a circus as a child, and several times as a young woman, but has made it her life’s work to share her story with others.
“To be honest, I can’t remember how old I was when raped as a child. I was always adventurous, and while at the circus I went exploring and climbed over some bales of hay. There were two men who saw me, and before I knew it one of them had pulled a knife. I was so scared of that knife. Before I knew it I was being raped,” she said.
“I remember running home and getting into the bath. I just remember feeling the warmth of that bath, and once I had told my parents what happened, the love that was around me.”
She was raped a second time while attending a party as a young woman.
“I fancied this guy and wanted to be with him. There was drinking and partying, but before I knew it the guy’s friend had me alone in a room and raped me. The worst part was that the guy I fancied tried to commiserate with me afterwards. The thing is, I would have happily have had sex with him, but not after that.”
On another occasion, she had been massaging a friend’s shoulders, a man she described as “beautiful”, when he suddenly turned her over onto her back and attacked her.
“People ask me how I can talk about these things so easily, but I have learnt to do so. It’s important that we continue to live our lives. It’s about reclaiming your sex, it’s about clawing back at your life,” she said.
“I see value in people sharing their stories, because it makes you stronger. You must remember just because you are a strong, confident person, it doesn’t mean you can’t be caught out. But we need to understand the richness of how we can learn from one another.”
Taking the lead from Ms Bourhill’s testimony, a woman explained how she had to shelve her ambitions to study further after she became pregnant by her boyfriend.
“My boyfriend didn’t pay for my kid at all, so I said, ‘Let me leave him’. When my kid was one, this man had a child with another woman. We lived close to each other, and I used to see him walking past my house carrying diapers for this other child. At that stage I had got a job to support my own child, so I didn’t even care,” she said.
“Fast forward seven years, and this man came back to ask for forgiveness. I forgave him and two years later we got married and had another child. Then he started cheating on me. It was happening almost every second week. We fought every night, and it was having a severe impact on my kids. The older one’s marks at school dropped badly.”
The woman said she had never come to terms with the resentment and anger she had for the man for betraying her, and while she had “good days”, she frequently flew into a rage without warning.
Community Cohesion director, Bronwyn Moore, reminded the survivors that such a reaction was normal. “Some days you feel fantastic, but life also happens. We need to forgive ourselves.”
One of the more heart-wrenching testimonies came from a young woman who was diagnosed HIV-positive in September.
Falling pregnant in Grade 11, she was compelled by her family to marry the father of her child. While initially there were no problems, her husband became abusive.
“He became a Rasta, and he started emotionally blackmailing me. I didn’t like that he was a Rasta, but he said he would find another woman who would accept him for who he was if I continued to complain. During this time I started selling and smoking ganja.
“My husband started cheating on me, but when I flipped about it he would beat me. That was when I started drinking and cheating myself. At one point I was sleeping on the couch of another man who I always looked up to as a brother. I started drinking one day and passed out. When I woke up I was in his bed and was naked. I knew I had been raped.”
When she approached the man about this, he denied it vehemently, she said.
“I told my husband about what had happened, but all he said was that ‘this is what happens when you drink’. No one would believe me. I then started drinking heavily. My husband left me. I haven’t seen him in over a year, and he doesn’t pay for our child.
“I have always had regular check-ups at the clinic. September I went for one of these and the sister told me I was HIV-positive. I started my treatment yesterday (Thursday November 30), but I look at those tablets, and ask myself, ‘Is this my life now?’ “
The high tea has become a highlight on the Community Cohesion calendar, and while there were many harrowing accounts, the fortitude of the survivors in the face of adversity was cause for celebration. The “conquerors” were treated to delicious eats, tea coffee and juice, and also presented with comforting scarves and goodie bags as an early Christmas present.
The event was also used to celebrate the organisation winning the Victim Empowerment Programme category in the Department of Social Development’s annual Service Excellence Awards.
As the regional winner, Community Cohesion represented the Western Cape in the national awards in Johannesburg this week.
“It is fantastic to be acknowledged for our work. We feel very fortunate to have been supported by provincial government in our endeavours, and we also want to say thank you to our extraordinary clients who are all conquerors to us.”