Recently, sexual violence against women has been on the top of the news around the world. Gang rapes in India and most recently in South Africa have put the spotlight on a cruel reality that rarely creates the big headlines. In South Africa, sexual violence is a part of life for too many women and children.
Last year, Ekupholeni Mental Health & Trauma Centre outside Johannesburg received 786 new clients who had been sexually abused. 501 of them were children, of whom 148 were between 2 and 7 years. The organization covers an area of a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Martha, who is responsible for Ekupholenis Gender Violence Program, tells me about a case that occupies her thoughts today. A 15-year-old girl went to the local pub with a friend and left the pub in a car with a policeman. One day later, she was found brutally beaten near her own home. She was in a state of coma for a few weeks and when I talk to Martha, she has just found out that the girl died of the injuries. The medical examination showed that the girl had been raped and several witnesses can identify the policeman. Most likely, there is DNA evidence. Nevertheless nothing happens. The policeman still goes free. This is not unusual. Only about 4% of reported cases result in a conviction. But Martha will continue to pursue the case. There are ways to push a case when there are suspicions that the police are not interested in finding the offender. And Martha seems very determined.
The strange thing is that despite this terrible history, and despite the overwhelmingly high numbers of children victims of abuse that Ekupholeni meets each day, this day is characterized by friendliness and hope. Ekupholeni works in a couple of containers and a small house outside of a large run-down hospital. An important part of their activities are support groups, both for the victims but also for the victim’s families. Besides talking about the pains they have gone through, the groups receive support to find strategies to live with it. To prevent the abuse from happening again, Ekupholeni works with the whole person, not just the consequences of the abuse. Little girls who are victims of abuse must also play or for example go swimming with a relative. Boys who themselves act out and hurt others get help to strengthen the relationship with their families and together with their families work on getting an understanding for what the boys are doing wrong. Teenage girls who have been in therapy for a while and can now concentrate a little better get help to catch up in school. Young children who come to Ekupholeni barely understand what has happened to them. They take part of play therapy in the container named after the painting on it, “The Green Elephant”. In the container there are lots of toys and mini motorcycles for the children to play with. Mothers, whose children have been victims of abuse, get to meet others in the group “Mother’s Tears” and at the end of the semester, they go on wilderness camp with the children, which is both an opportunity for an intensive therapeutic process but also an opportunity to be close and play with their children. The energy and the ideas of Ekupholeni seem endless.