“They might also be afraid. They might feel that they will be blamed because they don’t know what’s going on. There is also this fear of stigma; (being told) ‘it’s your fault’ and ‘you should’ve done things differently’. It keeps the victim silent.”
That is the professional opinion of Mark de la Ray, a psychologist at the Kenilworth branch of psychiatric rehabilitation centre Akeso, who spoke to VOC news on Wednesday regarding the reluctance of rape victims to speak out.
It follows numerous rape-related court cases which have made headlines recently, including that of a 56-year-old man who was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for sexually assaulting his two granddaughters aged five and nine.
On Monday, a 48-year-old Cape Town jazz musician Camillo Lombard appeared in court and stands accused of rape and sexual grooming of a now 21-year old man. It is alleged that the musician assaulted the survivor from the age of 14. The suspect was granted bail of R1000; a move that has been severely criticised by anti- gender-based violence (GBV) organisations.
To answer why sexual abuse survivors at times only open up years later, De la Ray explained that numerous factors come into play which includes the level of trauma, indecisiveness, confusion or fear about what happened to them. He further pointed to the abuse of younger children, who would not understand the concepts of violation or abuse.
“We’re not only talking about mostly adults or adolescents. There are younger children that this also sometimes happens to. They could be 5, 6,7 years old and don’t actually know what’s happened to them at that point,” he said.
Perpetrators also use various methods to silence their victims including intimidation. This is successful when the victim is dependent on the perpetrator, such as an employer pressuring an employee with retrenchment or when children are threatened with violence.
“In younger victims, they will get told things like, if you speak about this I will hurt you or your mother or father. Sometimes there might also be a whole grooming process where they are made to feel that this is right in some way, even though they feel something is wrong. They are lulled into the sense that what’s happening is normal. That can be quite a long psychological process the person has gone through,” he elaborated.
In a country with one of the highest gender-based-violence rates in the world, the expert explained that “rape has been made much broader in South Africa” and does not necessarily indicate the stereotype of a stranger forcing themselves onto someone. This is evident through studies which found that the majority of victims know their perpetrators personally.
Another aspect of the complexity of rape is the victim’s physical response, where their bodies react in a manner that suggest they enjoyed it. This climax, de la Ray explained, is a physical reaction and does not negate the emotional and psychological trauma of the act but which often leaves the victim confused.
“The difficulty is that our bodies are biological machines and they are prime to respond in a particular way to particular things that happen; which has nothing to do with our moral or ethical feelings and thoughts about those things,” he said.
“In those situations, a victim’s body responds and will perhaps make them feel guilty or (question) ‘then why did my body respond, I must have wanted it to happen’ or ‘I shouldn’t have felt that way’. They would then start to internalize that as them being complicit or that it’s something that they wanted when it was never so.”
In the event of a victim seeking to lay charges years after the assault, the results of a medical examination done after the incident would assist. If this is not present, it is usually one word against the other.
“The difficulty is that it’s always going to be where only the two people that were involved will know what the actual truth is. If it goes to court, those investigating will look for all the evidence they can find and then again, it will go on testimonies of those two people,” he said.
“It becomes complicated years later, but usually multiple victims sometimes then start to come through and then the testimony becomes stronger than the (need for) physical evidence.”
With an increased focus on combatting GBV in the country and civil society’s calls for harsher punishments for offenders, the psychologist said the awareness may make survivors more comfortable with speaking out. Sadly, however, this is not reflecting due to fears of discrimination.
“It’s still an extremely difficult thing. There is still a lot of stigma and fear attached to it so we’re not necessarily seeing people speaking out. Sometimes victims speak to family, doctors or psychologists and they don’t want it to be investigated because they still carry so much fear and shame around it. Even if they do, they do not necessarily want to speak out (publicly) about it,” he added.
Among the main calls by anti-GBV demonstrators, during mass protests in 2019, was for appropriate training for those who handle and process the queries of victims. De la Ray explained that this is often a double-edged sword when it comes to the police.
“There are police officers and first responders who are absolutely amazing people and work very well with this. Some of it comes down to specific training, in police stations and so on, that they don’t have the resources and people are not dealt with in the right way, even if the officer is trying to do so.”
“And then, unfortunately, we do have situations where people are dealt with in a shocking, apathetic way. That is the re-traumatising of that person and cause other people who see and hear about it NOT want to go and report these crimes,” he added.
The key point of advice was to advise victims to speak up, not necessarily in the public domain.
“There is talking to spiritual leaders, doctor, psychologist, family friend or friend. Just verbalizing what happened might lead to you speaking about it on a public platform. In terms of your own health and psychological well-being that is something I would advise- find someone you feel safe and comfortable with and speak about it,” concluded De La Rey.