Opinionista Sanette Smit 25 January 2019

Lessons that we can learn from the Omotoso rape trial

As a self-defence and personal safety awareness expert, there are six lessons to be learned from the Omotoso trial so far.

One of the head-turning news stories of 2018 was the trial of controversial Nigerian pastor, Timothy Omotoso. Omotoso and his two co-accused, Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho, face several charges ranging from human trafficking to sexual assault and rape, allegedly committed between 2009 and 2017.

With the trial scheduled to resume early in February, the case is set to come into the spotlight again.

In the meantime, here are some insights.

1. Not fighting back does not equal consent:

Just after Omotoso’s trial commenced, news headlines were dominated by footage of complainant Cheryl Zondi who was cross-examined by the defence team to the point where new network eNCA turned footage of the interrogation for painful details into an advert with the headline “Is this justice?” Several reports took the stance that the questioning was handled as if Zondi were the accused and not the accuser.

The questioning of Zondi was seemingly abusive and offensive towards her moral integrity, placing the spotlight on the fact that, in South Africa, we still have a long way to go in terms of the definition of rape – especially where religious figures and figures of authority are concerned.

The definition of rape generally refers to the penetration of the vagina by the penis/foreign object against the will or consent of the victim, even if the victim does not physically resist. Many women are afraid to resisting because they feel intimidated and fear further physical injury. Zondi was only 14 at the time of the alleged rape and molestation – she had been groomed by the perpetrator and the fact that she did not try and stop him does in no way imply consent – she saw him as a Godly figure and out of fear and disbelief and paralysing shock she was incapable of making the “adult decision” to fight back.

2. Religious figures are not exempt from the reason perpetrators commit acts of sexual violation.

Rape is a conscious decision – an act of power, control, anger, aggression, violence, conquest and degradation, aimed at women and expressed through the sexual act.

Any man, even a religious figure, may rape to counter his feeling of inadequacy; to feel “high” on power and control and to release anger towards women due to not seeing women as worthy human beings.

Keep in mind that a religious title is a title on paper. Being a man of God does not give you immunity, so we cannot automatically assume that a religious figure will behave morally simply because they have the title. Often, the cloak of religion hides the same insecurities that drive other perpetrators to commit violations.

Learn to trust your instinct – if behaviour towards you feels wrong, uncomfortable and unwelcome, it is. Even if the acts are committed by a religious leader or another figure of authority.

3. More women are speaking out about violations:

We had a case of a young girl (Grade 1) in Hout Bay whose stepfather was a pastor and had paid her to keep quiet about the alleged molestation. She attended one of our classes in which the children are told that if anything is happening to them at home, they are to not only tell their mothers but report it to their teachers as well. She duly did this, even though he was a respected community member in terms of his religious role.

Fortunately, this perception is changing as more and more women are gaining the courage to speak out against alleged incidents of sexual violation. Movements such as the #MeToo movement and the Total Shutdown marches and Zondi’s recently formed charity to empower survivors are a case-in-point.

Zondi has been the voice for many women that have endured the same experience and tremendous support has been forthcoming. We salute her for exposing herself on a very public platform with so much dignity and showing women that they have the courage and fortitude to face the attacker and take back their power.

The survivor has a face and a voice that many women can identify with.

4. Greater awareness is required about reporting acquaintance rape:

One of the frequent patterns used by a rapist is the confidence pattern – he acquaints you through interaction/conversation and gains your confidence. Your guard is down. There are no danger signs. You feel relaxed, possibly doubting your own instincts, putting you off guard.

The scariest part of acquaintance rape is it may be someone you trust and or love – a family member, doctor or dentist – why would he rape you? This is probably why so many women do not report acquaintance rape – they try to avoid the perpetrator or pretend that it never happened.

Zondi went back to her mother and never told anybody – she became severely depressed. For eight years she had to carry that burden as nobody would believe that a man of God (and his two co-accused) had committed more than 90 charges of rape, sexual assault and racketeering.

The trial is teaching us that women should report the rape immediately – to put coping mechanisms in place to deal with the rape/abuse by not reporting it for such a long time will result in changes in behaviour – excessive alcohol consumption; acute depression; suicidal tendencies. We need safe structures in place for women to report rape.

5. A big crisis in Africa is still that women continue to live with the perpetrator out of desperation:

There are countless, shocking daily incidents of where girls and women are raped by someone they are forced to live with, because they do not have anywhere else to go; because they do not have an income of their own or because they are minors that have a perpetrator in their family, ie father, cousin, brother or family friend living with the family.

This is a devastating conundrum, as it is easy to say: “pick up your feet and walk away”.

A child has the basic right to safety and protection but can be exposed to aggravated abuse and even murder due to their living conditions. These incidents appear to be on the increase – barely a week passes without an account of the most gruesome child abuse imaginable.

However, there is hope.

Safe houses and shelters offer refuge to mothers with small children and no income, albeit a temporary solution. The challenge here is just for the mother to take the first brave step.

6. Harsher punishment needs to be instilled for violations:

Section 51 of South Africa’s Criminal Law Act of 1997 prescribes the minimum sentences for other types of murder, rapes and robberies to 25, 15 and 10 years respectively. We (the NGO Stay Safe) do not feel that imprisonment is the right punishment for rape, as most rapists do not rehabilitate and are likely to rape again. Therefore, we regard a life sentence without parole as a more fitting sentence for sexual offenders in South Africa.

In India, imprisonment for entire life and even the death sentence is passed in extreme cases. In France, the sentence is 15 years extended to 30 to life – depending on the extent of damage and brutality. In North Korea, a rapist can expect the firing squad. In China, the death penalty is declared once the rapist is convicted.

We need more extreme measures to show that rape is considered as serious – we are not there yet as a country. DM

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