South African Prison Rape Survivors Speak Out for the First Time
- Emily Nagisa Keehn and Sasha Gear
- December 8, 2014
- The Huffington Post
South African prisons are notorious the world-over for their endemic sexual abuse. Oscar Pistorious, Shrien Dewani, and other high profile accused have leveraged this fact in their efforts to avoid time behind bars. Despite this, prisoner rape is not well understood by South Africa’s public, and is more likely to be joked about than receive the serious attention it urgently needs. Prisoners — as the ‘face’ of pervasive violent crime in South Africa — are told that they deserve to be raped, and the public accepts prisoner rape as a norm. This hostility, the stigma attached to victims, and the lack of support provided by authorities, deter survivors from reporting rape. It causes the dismissal and rejection of those who do speak out, intensifying their trauma.
Three exceptionally brave men have come forward to share their stories about surviving rape in South Africa’s prisons. They want to bring it out of the shadows, and are demanding action. Vincent, Francois and Thabo are the first South African survivors of prisoner rape to tell their stories in this way:
Vincent* tells how he was raped by two gang members in an overcrowded cell in a Western Cape awaiting trial facility. This was his very first sexual experience. Vincent asked for help from nurses, wardens, priests, social workers, and even a magistrate who all rejected him and told him to expect this treatment in prison. He only received medical attention three years after he was raped when he was sentenced, and then learned he was HIV-positive as a result of the rape. Vincent calls on the Department of Correctional Services to stop this from happening to others, and encourages survivors to speak up. After telling his story, Vincent feels stronger than before, and says “I know I have a purpose in this life.”
Francois was violently raped twice in an Eastern Cape correctional centre, once at knife-point, and on Valentine’s Day he was raped a second time. He reported the rapes to the warders, but never received counseling or support. In despair, Francois attempted suicide. After being released, he sued the Department of Correctional Services, and after 10 years he accepted a settlement offer based on the promise that they would take action to stop inmates from being raped. When nothing changed, Francois decided to tell his story. Francois encourages other survivors to seek help and says “I know I can make it because I’m a survivor.”
Thabo*, from Limpopo, went to prison when he was 21 years old and was repeatedly raped during the decade he spent behind bars. He attempted suicide but survived, unlike three other inmates he knew who were raped then took their own lives. Experiencing serious trauma and shame, Thabo struggles to interact with people. He says he left prison with a lesson and an illness (HIV). The biggest weight he has carried is that nobody in his family knows what happened to him.
HIV infection is a regular and devastating consequence of prisoner rape. South African prisoners experience some of the highest rates of HIV in the country, and rape fuels transmission between inmates. Survivors of rape urgently require support to access the counseling and medical care they need to heal.
A critical first step to tackling sexual abuse in prison is to foster understanding of the issue by challenging dismissive and ridiculing public attitudes towards prisoner rape, and building social and political recognition of prisoner rape as the devastatingly violent crime it is.
In 2013, the South African Department of Correctional Services (DCS) adopted the Policy to Address the Sexual Abuse of Inmates In DCS facilities, which tackles the problem in similar ways to the Prison Rape Elimination Act in the U.S. This was an historic and important step towards ending prisoner rape in South Africa, but the main work — its implementation — lies ahead. This requires political will, and the promotion of public attitudes that uphold the constitutional right of prisoners to humane treatment.
Thanks to Vincent, Francois and Thabo, South African prisoner rape survivors have, for the first time, been given a human face. Their stories underscore the urgent need for action both to ensure respect for prisoners’ human rights, and to prevent the ripples the sexual abuse of prisoners has in our society as a whole. After all, it is the same destructive notions of masculinity behind the high levels of sexual and gender-based violence in South African communities that also drive prisoner rape. As most prisoners do not stay behind bars for life, the ill health, harm and trauma they experience affects the communities and families to which they return.
*Not their real names.