Shy at first, the twenty or so teenage girls and boys sitting around the table eventually opened up. They came together to discuss rape in their communities, and to share their experiences acting as Rape Crisis peer educators in their local high schools.
Their honesty was at times brutal, but their courage and determination to lead change in their communities brought light to their stories.
Samkele, like most of the girls and boys in the room, lived with his family in a shack made of corrugated iron sheets in Khayelitsha – one of South Africa’s poorest and fastest growing townships.
“Rape is a big problem in Khayelitsha”, he said. “Sometimes it’s like people are used to it. That it’s normal. Also, many think the person being raped is to blame, that they did something wrong and got raped.”
He has seen many cases of rape at his school and in his community, but Samkele said that Oxfam partner Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust (Rape Crisis) is making a real difference.
“Because now I know better than them, I was trained by Rape Crisis, it is my responsibility to help them see that they are wrong in many things they think. It is not true that women are to blame for rape. We must change this.”
The two boys sitting next to Samkele nod in agreement – his two business partners, he said. The three boys sell chips and candy at breaks and lunch times at school to make extra money to help support their families.
Rape Crisis runs education projects to raise awareness and prevent rape in schools, and offers counseling and legal support to rape survivors. Changing attitudes through education and dialogue is central to their work. Rape Crisis is funded in part by “Engendering Change” – a five-year women’s rights program supported by Oxfam, the Government of Canada and private donors.
But Samkele added that: “it has not always been easy. At first my father and older brother laughed at me, because they said that I am not a real man.”
Yoliswa said she wakes up at 5:30 every morning to fetch water, heat it, and prepare food for her family before getting ready for school. She also lives in the Khayelitsha township. She wants to become an actress when she grows up.
“I’ve learned a lot and gained more confidence from being a peer counselor at Rape Crisis”, she said.
“Often girls think that they should not wear a skirt, or walk alone, or do different things at school because it could get them raped. Part of the problem is that our parents and other people tell us this. They don’t know better. But I tell them that rape is not their fault, that there is never a reason for rape, it is always wrong.”
“That is why it’s important to start educating young people about rape and attitudes. We can make a difference.”
Attitudes are shifting in South Africa thanks to the work of organizations like Rape Crisis, and young people like Samkele and Yoliswa who are leading change in their communities. However, rape statistics remain unacceptably high, and many lament a culture of impunity for rapists and weak government efforts at prevention. There is still a long way to go.
Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust continues today to act as a bridge between rape survivors and the community. They continue to work to reduce the stigma of rape, to increase support available to survivors, and to prevent future cases of rape.