Seeing past the pain

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Going to bars and parties are some of the things Estelle has avoided doing as a means of self-preservation.

“My various incidents with sexual assault have made me wary. I avoid going to bars. I avoid loud parties and being alone around people I don’t know well, especially men,” says the 20-year-old student.

Estelle who has declined the use of her last name, was sexual assaulted twice in the space of less than 10 months, when she was 17.

“I am allowed to grieve the violation of my privacy and my space.”

The first incident of sexual assault was at a school dance. Though it was dark and no adult saw what happened, she had a friend confirm that the perpetrator had been in Estelle’s vicinity.

“Besides that, I could adequately identify him myself. I reported the incident the next day, and it was followed up on; however, due to a supposed lack of evidence, I was encouraged to drop the claims.

“Less than 10 months later, I was at a party when I was assaulted again. The worst part about this was that I had been asleep when the person started touching me and I woke up to someone I didn’t know with his hands on me. I froze. I couldn’t do anything. It was so hard to get myself to move, but eventually I kicked and the person ran away once he realised I was awake,” she says in an interview with SAnews.

The next day, the perpetrator admitted to what he had done but Estelle decided not to press charges– in part, because of what had happened previously.

“I thought nobody would believe me. I thought it was my fault. Thinking back on both those incidents, I still wonder if I’d been less outspoken, if I’d worn a different outfit, if I’d been more demure, if any of this would have happened, but the truth is that it probably would have, and it isn’t my fault.”

Post the 2017 incidents, Estelle who is blind, points out that she will never feel like herself again.

“I’ll admit that I am still scared; that the memories never go away; that I will probably never feel completely normal again. Sexual assault takes away from you; not only as a person, but [also] as it regards your freedom and the way you see yourself.”

Addressing GBV

Last month crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) showed an increase in rape, domestic violence and child murder.

The stats released just a week before the launch of the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, revealed that in just three months, between July and September 2021, a reported 9 556 people, most of whom were women, were raped. This is 7% more than in the previous reporting period.

As the fight against GBV continues, the National Assembly has passed three gender-based violence bills that will change the landscape in terms of how government departments, law enforcement and the courts deal with cases of violence against women and the vulnerable.

The three bills - namely the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill - were introduced in Parliament following a Presidential Summit against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) held in November 2018.

Meanwhile, government has allocated at least R21 billion in support of the fight against GBVF. Since the launch of the National Strategic Plan (NSP) to Combat Gender-based Violence last year, 32 regional courts have been designated as Sexual Offences Courts in various parts of the country and about 3 500 investigating officers received specialised training on Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual crimes.

Support is also given to survivors through the provision of evidence kits at police stations and psycho-social services; the establishment of a GBVF Fund and supporting the network of Thuthuzela and Khuseleka Care Centres among others.

On whether enough is being done to address GBV, Estelle says government is doing what it can.

“Too often still, women are made to feel ashamed of their various experiences with gender based violence, and I don’t know that the stigma is something government could even take away.  I also don’t necessarily think it is up to government to change the way women and children are seen and treated. I understand that GBV is an epidemic in South Africa and that government does what it can. Would I call that effective as a survivor? I do not know.”

Estelle is also urging victims not to be shamed into silence.

 “It is not your fault. It does not matter how you [were] dressed, how you acted, what you said. It is not your fault. And if you can talk about it, please keep talking about it, make people uncomfortable. Your story is just that, and you do not deserve to be shamed into silence,” she says.

Embracing life

As the country continues observing 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, South Africa also recently observed National Disability Rights Awareness Month which runs annually between 3 November and 3 December. 

The brave BA student who is not fazed by her disability, has just completed her second year at the University of Pretoria.

“Though I think that having a disability has its challenges, I think it is important to say that I am as independent as possible, and that I try not to let the fact that I have a disability stand in my way of anything I set my mind to. Life is not always easy, though the same can be said for anybody, and I just have to ensure I have the necessary accommodations to function on a level with my peers.”

She also urges the public to be considerate of people with disabilities.

“I may not look and/or behave like you. Some of the things I need may not ever be things you need…I just ask that you understand that I, and many other disabled people, need your help to have access to basic things, because society has not yet accommodated for them,” she says.

While the last few years have not been easy for her, talking about her ordeal is part of the healing process for this driven lady who is keen on pursuing a career in academics, preferably in languages.

“I want to include my love for travel and teaching in one package,” she says.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign which will run until 10 December. –SAnews.gov.za

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