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The long shadow of gender-based violence




These are the words of Rozanne Sack, one of a multitude of experts and survivors speaking at a SA Jewish Report webinar on 1 July, which unpacked the long-term effect of abuse and how difficult it is to confront it.

Human rights lawyer Professor Bonita Meyersfeld pointed out that one in three women experience gender-based violence – even in our own community. “It’s a low-level civil war. Complicity is 50% of the problem,” she says.

Crossing a line

Sack told her story: “It was a huge shock when I realised that a medical professional, whom I had trusted completely, had crossed a boundary by manipulating me to believe that I needed unnecessary medical examinations which were for his own sexual gratification.

“There were years of ‘grooming’ [a process of manipulation and trust-building that a perpetrator will use to create an atmosphere in which they can abuse someone]. He was my doctor, and I really trusted him. I put him on a pedestal, and never challenged anything he did medically.

“So, when I realised that a boundary had been crossed, it took a long time to decide what to do. It soon became evident that I wasn’t the only one this had happened to. This helped me make the decision to press charges in order to prevent others from the same abuse. By going to the Health Professions Council of South Africa, I trusted that it would uphold the Hippocratic Oath and make the right decision about whether he was fit to continue practicing.”

Accepting that she had been abused was hard, but standing up to it was equally painful. “The whole process took about four years from when it was reported until the council hearing,” she says. Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and one other woman, who had experienced similar abuse, joined Sack in pressing charges. Hendler and Sack have since founded Koleinu South Africa, a helpline for victims of abuse in the Jewish community that also educates about abuse and advocates for change.

No matter how hard it was for Sack, she encourages others to speak out. “During those four years, the three of us who laid charges had a lot of support from those in the community who knew about the case. However, some prominent members of the community put pressure on us to drop the case. We were intimidated, told that terrible things would happen to us and our families, and told we were destroying this person’s family and bringing shame to the community. While the support was there, it paled in the face of this onslaught.

“It was even more traumatic to go through this victim-blaming. We were described as hysterical women on a witch hunt, liars, and moserim [a Jewish person who reports a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities]. Learned rabbis have said that lashon hara [speaking badly of others] and the concept of the moser don’t apply to abuse. Safety is more important. We even had to send a lawyer’s letter to a prominent member of the community to desist from intimidating victims.

“For those four years, I lived with my ‘heart in my throat’. I was often shaky, and some days it was hard to function normally. To this day, I avoid going to doctors. I was always an open and friendly person, very trusting, but now I’m much more wary. This is a heavy price to have paid. If the perpetrator had shown remorse or acknowledged what he had done, it would have helped my healing process, but we never got that.

“The day before the hearing, one of the complainants got death threats. During the hearing, we all endured long cross-examinations which attacked our character. We pushed through, and when the perpetrator was found guilty on all charges of performing acts of a sexual nature on his patients, we felt hugely relieved.

“We were disappointed at the weak sentence [suspended from practicing for one year as long as there were no further complaints within a five year period].

“Wendy and I started Koleinu because we experienced first-hand how hard it is for abuse victims in the community to speak up and find support and direction. While our community is doing better, we have a way to go to becoming a safe space for people to come forward. We know people might want such an incident to be dealt with internally within community structures – be it the shul, school, or other organisations – but often that protects the perpetrator and doesn’t allow for justice to take its course and for victims to be protected. We want all communal organisations to have policies in place to allow abuse to be reported to the correct authorities so that there is clear direction and no room for intimidation.”

Abuse by a sibling

Thumi*, a survivor of gender-based violence, also shared her story. She asked to remain anonymous as she has opened a case against her abuser.

Thumi has been a victim of verbal and physical violence at the hands of her brother since they were children. “I was once in a confrontation with him, and my mother said, ‘He is a man, he will beat you.’ At the time, it didn’t mean much, but now I realise it was showing a boy child that he had every right to beat a woman.”

As shown in the memoir Educated by Tara Westover, violence at the hands of a sibling can be extreme, and is bound up in complicated family dynamics.

“The first time I laid charges against my brother, my mother said she would be on his side, and asked how I could put my own brother in jail. I had to drop the case,” Thumi said.

Since then, her mother has realised what’s at stake, and has supported her daughter in opening a new case. However, her initial support for him is still deeply painful.

She says violence in the home is rife in her community. Many can’t report it because they depend on the abuser as a breadwinner, and because it could divide the family. While they may try move away, economic circumstances don’t always allow it. And if they do move away, there’s always the chance they may need to return home, and it’s not worth creating conflict. She says we need deep, systemic changes so that women aren’t beholden to family members that abuse them.

Gender expert Lisa Vetten of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research confirmed that economic circumstances often prevent women and children from escaping violent situations. While some say a woman should find employment to solve this problem, many can’t, and others don’t want to, and should be respected.

“I didn’t realise how the abuse affected me until I became a mother myself,” Thumi says. “I have a son, and looking back on what I experienced, I decided to raise him differently. I allow him to cry when needed. I come from a culture where the African black man doesn’t cry. Men harbour so much anger, and this leads to violence. We need to raise boy children to be a ‘person’, not a ‘man’.”

Clinical psychologist Leanne Zabow says gender-based violence often comes from deep insecurity in men. They never learn to deal with such feelings, and then react with violence when they feel threatened. Children who witness violence are more at risk of perpetrating it.

“Some children identify with the aggressor, while others identify with the victim, and choose a different path,” she says. Some mothers value their boys over their girls, as a reflection of how they don’t value themselves. These patterns need to be worked through in therapy to prevent repetition down the generations.

Luke Lamprecht of Women and Men Against Child Abuse agreed that intervention should start early, and often young boys aren’t prioritised. They are treated only after they have committed an act of violence, but parents, teachers, and society as a whole needs to work with that child to prevent it happening in the first place.

Thumi is also resisting these patterns by refusing to be in an abusive relationship. She notes that women in her community don’t talk about gender-based violence. Even her own sisters won’t talk about their violent brother. Yet, if women joined forces, they could have a much bigger impact. She would also like to see the mothers of perpetrators say that they don’t condone what their child has done.

Even winning Miss SA didn’t mask the horror

Another speaker, Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Laurel Olivier, told the SA Jewish Report that at 26, she has the world at her feet, but her life hasn’t been without struggle.

“I was sexually abused from the age of seven until I was 11. I’m grateful I don’t remember much of it, but I remember how it happened the first time. There was definitely grooming, and the person was able to get to me because my parents had just divorced and I wasn’t solely in either parents’ care, but was staying at a relative,” she says. “I know the trauma was bad, or I wouldn’t have got post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. The aftermath is much harder for me than the trauma.”

Even when she achieved her dream of becoming Miss South Africa, a dream she hoped would take her away from that past, she still woke up the next day with the reality that she was a survivor of sexual abuse. “It never leaves you. I understand that as a child, my brain suppressed the trauma because its primary function was growth and survival. It was only when I was in my early 20s that I suffered the full ramifications.”

Today, she knows that her voice and platform can empower other survivors. She believes that the primary way to support a survivor of abuse is to believe in them. They also need to be reminded of their dignity, which is why she is so supportive of the rape comfort kit packs (filled with toiletries and items like a teddy bear, that comfort someone dealing with abuse) that South African publicity guru and activist Penny Stein is working to distribute throughout the country.

“When Penny handed me that pack, and it said, ‘It’s not your fault’, I cried. I’m not a very emotional person, but I needed to read those words.”

Miranda Jordan-Friedmann of Women & Men Against Child Abuse spoke of how such violence begins even before a child is born, for example, those who are conceived as a result of rape. She says these children are the most vulnerable to abandonment or violence, which in turn might make them violent adults, continuing the cycle. “Hurt children hurt other children, and eventually hurt other adults,” she says.

Sipho Marima, a brand ambassador for the Women For Change Run, says men need to take on an activist role – it’s not enough just to be non-violent. He runs the last two kilometres of marathons barefoot as an active symbol of solidarity with abuse survivors, emphasising that turning the tide against gender-based violence in this country is in our hands.

*Not her real name

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