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The silence of abuse is being broken but at what cost

More and more we are breaking the silence of abuse and women and men are building the courage to speak out and seek justice. But at what cost?  Cheryl Zondi was subject to invasive, some say inhumane, questioning when her testimony was cross-examined at the trial of her alleged rapist, pastor Timothy Omotoso. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, psychologist experienced in dealing with significant life trauma reveals the price that victims pay when they disclose the violent crimes committed against them and why for some the cost is just too high.

The trial of Timothy Omotoso, a Nigerian televangelist, is currently being heard in the Port Elizabeth High Court.  He and his two co-accused are standing trial on multiple charges of grooming, sexually assaulting and raping young teenage girls.

Cheryl Zondi, a 22-year-old student, faced three days of invasive cross-examination in open court. Omotoso’s advocate, Peter Daubermann, has been criticised for his approach when cross-examining Zondi, which must have been extremely difficult to endure. He repeatedly asked her very intimate and brutal questions including how deeply she had been penetrated by the man accused of raping her. Some believe that his questioning style was unethical and seriously violated the rights of the alleged victim.

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has raised concerns about the secondary traumatisation that rape survivors experience when testifying in court.

Cheryl Zondi released a message of thanks to all who had stood by her and sent messages of support.

“Being a woman in this world is a challenging task on its own and we constantly find ourselves having to defend our dignity on a daily basis, so whatever battle I am fighting is the same battle every other woman out there is fighting.”

Reading her blog, there is a line at the end a piece entitled ‘Trapped’ where she describes her first experience of being raped at the age of fourteen. “I am trapped and mute for the next two-and-a-half years and someday I’ll have to find my voice again.”

What is clear is that she has found her voice again. She speaks with calm, strong conviction giving courage to those who have been silenced by fear.  Despite anonymous threatening calls saying “God will kill her” if she spoke out about her experience and testified against ‘a man of God,’ she somehow finds the strength to speak her truth.  To tell her story not only to the court but through social media to the world.

Perhaps the fact that some women are managing to speak out with clarity, conviction and resolve will give courage to many more women, and also men who are survivors of abuse, and give them back their voice. The fact that many are standing in solidarity and support is beginning to shift the landscape.

The messages that most women, even those among us who have the advantages of higher education and access to resources, are socialised into make it extraordinarily difficult to speak out.  “Be a good girl,” “don’t rock the boat,” “give the other person the benefit of the doubt,” “think of the impact on your children if you say something,”  “let it go,”  “maybe it wasn’t or isn’t as bad as you remember or think.”

Women can’t easily speak their truth. The cost feels too high and we are too accustomed to carrying the cost ourselves, rather than taking the risk to speak out — at great personal cost — with no assurance that justice will be done.

The recent hearing confirming the appointment Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in the USA saw another woman speak-out out about her experience. Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault when they were in high school. He was ultimately confirmed by a margin of one. But yet again a woman, despite death threats and media harassment, found the courage to publicly speak out about her experience and not be silenced by her fears.  Why is it so difficult in our society for women to speak out in such situations especially when it involves powerful men?

There is support from some quarters for those women who have been abused to break the silence. Although too often the decision to speak out has weighty consequences and threatens reputation, financial status and physical safety.

Women making accusations of sexual misconduct in court have their sexual lives opened to public scrutiny, losing all privacy.  The cost of speaking out or standing out can be a great one. Cheryl Zondi and Christine Blasey Ford are among the few who we able to find the necessary conviction and courage to override their fears.

Are the accused owed a fair trial? Yes, certainly — but the system is skewed.

The prospects of re-victimisation through the kind of cross-examination Zondi had to face and the loss of privacy and personal safety are, not surprisingly, too difficult for most women to bear.

They — we — carry the cost of what is unjust and too often perpetrators go on to harm more innocent people.  I agree with the Commission for Gender Equality that we need to look at setting-up specialised courts for sexual offences and to think carefully through what might make it easier for abused women and men to report crimes committed against them. In our own communities, churches, and families we need to stand by women when they find their voices and speak their truth.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.