With 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children having kicked off on 25 November this year, gender activists and society alike pose important questions: “What is the relevance of only 16 days of activism? What should be done to stem the relentless onslaught of abuse against women and children?”
While the answers to both these questions seem illusive into the near future, the story of twelve year old Sibongile (not her real name), serves as a stark reminder why abuse against women and children needs to be prioritised. She speaks in a low whisper, avoids eye contact, and twirls a stick between her fingers as she continuously shifts her weight on the plastic garden chair she is seated on. She is not a shy child, but a child that has been severely traumatised, a child that has been left with anger and resentment at the violation she endured. Sibongile has no memory of when her father brought her, her stepmother and two half-brothers from Zimbabwe to South Africa. The only memories that come to the fore is the abuse she endured at the will of her stepmother.
“My stepmother abused me. My stepmother would leave me to look after my two younger brothers, while she went drinking. I had to make sure that I feed them, clean up after them while she was drinking with her friends. She wouldn’t feed me and look after me.” Sibongile explains. As she tells her story, something deeper, far more insidious seems to be brewing beneath the veneer of the “evil stepmother” archetype Sibongile describes, and then the full extent of what she endured hits you like Mike Tyson’s clenched fist.
“My stepmother used me, she sold me for sex to this man called Joe (not his real name). On some days, after I came back from school, she would tell me to go to Joe’s house. She told me to go and have sex with him. Sometimes I would bring back the money and give it to her, at other times she would go and collect the money herself.” Sibongile elaborates.
Sibongile’s stepmother would collect anything from R 50 to R 100, to a few beers from Joe, according to Pedzisai Matandire, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Social Worker, based in Limpopo, who intervened in Sibongile’s case. “This went on for months. JRS was notified of this case when a group of concerned residents in the area approached JRS about ‘worrisome’ activity involving Joe, Sibongile and her stepmother. Joe was a neighbour and regular drinking companion of the stepmother and the community was concerned that Sibongile spent too much of her time alone, with an unrelated adult men, at his house, behind closed doors,” elaborates Matandire.
Sibongile’s father works long hours, his shift starts at eleven o’clock in the morning and he returns home in the early hours of the following morning. “I hardly get to see my children, I only get one day off from work, and that is a Monday, when she [Sibongile] goes to school. So I never knew about this, we didn’t talk about it, we hardly talk, I didn’t notice a change in her behaviour.” Paul, (not his real name) Sibongile’s father, cannot look you in the eye as the shame of not having intervened in time weighs heavy on him.
He is on the brink: every time he speaks, the tell-tale signs of a man about to burst into tears paint his face. Tears gloss over his eyes as his cheeks and nose take on a slight blush. Paul then explains: “A lady from the community, who stayed near Joe, came to tell me about what happened to my daughter. I did not want to believe it at first, but then I asked that my wife report the matter to the police and at school to the principal so that they could investigate. She did not however.”
What Paul did not know was that it was his wife who had been sending Sibongile to Joe, and so when members of the community felt that nothing was being done, they approached Matandire. Matandire explains: “Some members of the community came to my office and told me about what was going on. I went to the school where Sibongile initially denied what had happened. I was concerned and felt that the child could have been so traumatised or threatened that she did not want to speak. I approached the Department of Social Development (DSD), but I was told by some of the employees that nothing could be done as the child is a foreigner. I then later spoke to Sibongile in private and she told me the whole story.”
An interim court order has placed the child in the custody of a shelter for vulnerable children. A police investigation is underway but Joe has fled and his whereabouts are unknown at the moment. Paul is still with his wife, and the court has granted him supervised visitation rights with his daughter. The police are also investigating his wife’s involvement in the abuse of Sibongile, however, arrests are yet to be made. Of the current situation, Paul looks down, shakes his head and says: “It’s painful, it is not okay. I can’t leave my wife. I have two young sons with her, what happens to them? One is five years old and the other is one year and one month old.”
About Sibongile, Paul has the following to say: “I have noticed a change in my daughter. Now, she is growing, she seems free as a child unlike when she was at home.”
The regret Paul feels, digs deep furrows into his face. He feels trapped in the relationship where he has no connection with his wife, a relationship that led to his daughter’s sexual exploitation and a relationship based on fear for the fate of his two young sons. If Sibongile’s case highlights one truth, it is that community involvement is key to the protection of children and women from abuse. If it were not for concerned people within the community taking action, and speaking out about what they suspected to be an abusive situation, nobody would have intervened in Sibongile’s case.
Nondumiso Nsibande, Executive Director at Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women (TLAC) has the following to say on community involvement: “As we know South Africa faces a huge challenge of underreporting of sexual crimes. We commend the community for taking action against the alleged perpetrator and we trust that justice will be served. In fact Section 54 of the Sexual Offences Act places an obligation on any person who has knowledge that a sexual offence has been committed against child to report such knowledge immediately to a police official, failure to do so may result in criminal prosecution. We therefore encourage more communities to speak out on this issue and support victims of rape, whilst urging the Police and other state authorities to create safe and conducive environments for these matters to be reported and treated with the urgency required.“
So, if these 16 days of activism or any other such campaign does anything, let it provide Sibongile and children like her the protection they need. DM