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What a Sudanese girl taught me about Saint Maria Goretti

A warning for our readers:
This story describes violent acts committed against women and children.

The life and death of Saint Maria Goretti is often told as a warning against giving in to sexual pleasure. Levinia Pienaar relates an experience during her time as an African Union-United Nations peacekeeper in Darfur, reflecting on this in the light of her experience of catechesis in her childhood parish. Her experience brings home the stark reality that girls and women are powerless to fend off their attackers.

Mounted atop her grandfather’s donkey, a 12-year-old rode off from her village in Darfur to fetch firewood with her cousin, about nine-years-old at the time.  Returning home, a group of men confronted the girls, threatening to steal their donkey and firewood. While her cousin was able to run away, the 12-year-old fought to keep her grandfather’s donkey, fearing his wrath if the donkey were stolen. In retaliation, they stole her grandfather’s donkey and the firewood – and they raped her.

I met the girl in the village, the afternoon following her rape. Another woman was with her. Both appeared terrified. Through an interpreter,  I tried to ask them what was wrong. They refused to speak. I told them to go home and promised them I would return the next day.

A village in Darfur // Photo supplied by Levinia Pienaar.

Every year, Saint Maria Goretti is remembered in the Catholic calendar of saints on 6 July.  My catechism teacher taught us that 11-year-old Goretti, the uneducated daughter of a poor Italian family, was killed in an attempt to fend herself off from her attacker and would-be rapist. Her feast day reminded me of the experience of the 12-year-old girl I met in Sudan when I was serving as a peacekeeper for the United Nations’ hybrid operation with the African Union in Darfur, UNAMID. As a gender officer, I was expected to engage with women, children, the elderly and those with disabilities to address matters that concerned them.

In Sudan, rape, genocide and the many other despicable human rights violations were the visible signs of deeper violence that permeated the society. Rape is a weapon, wielded against the most vulnerable members of society. You are thought to have won over your enemies if you’re able to lay violent claim to their wives and daughters. The victims of sexual abuse – commonly young girls, boys and women – live with memories of abuse that can never be erased.

Rape is a weapon, wielded against the most vulnerable members of society. You are thought to have won over your enemies if you’re able to lay violent claim to their wives and daughters.

The next day, I discovered that the woman I had seen with the girl was her aunt, her mother’s sister. After her rape the girl ran to her aunt’s house, petrified of her grandfather’s reaction when he learned that his donkey had been stolen. Almost instinctively, she appeared to know that the fact that the donkey had been stolen was more serious than the rape she had suffered. The donkey was a source of income for her impoverished family. Her grandfather, a community elder and leader, would rent out the donkey to other villagers. Without the donkey, her family would suffer financially and her grandfather would lose his status and utility in the community.  

The girl also worried, now that she was no longer a virgin, that her family would not receive a fair bride price – if anything at all – when the time came for her to marry.  She would be treated as an outcast for the rest of her life. Her rape had brought shame to her family. Still, she was intent on recovering the donkey from its captors and sought her aunt’s help.

Harbouring her niece at her home, the girl’s aunt informed her sister of what had happened to her daughter. Together, they decided that it would be best for her to spend the night away from home, in the hope that the donkey could be recovered and she could return home without her grandfather learning about what happened. The sisters knew that their plan also carried a significant risk for them. If they were caught deceiving their father, they could be killed for lying to him. They knew, nonetheless, that they needed to protect the girl at all cost.

Aware of the complexity of the situation, I was relieved that the girl was safe with her aunt for the night. The arrangement bought me and my colleagues time to think through a plan to ensure their safety and a resolution to the situation.

Her rape had brought shame to her family.

A local doctor I’d met at monthly meetings between the U.N., other humanitarian organisations and the office of Sudan’s minister for gender and health was my first stop. I was joined by a colleague, who was a social worker for the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

As I recounted the situation — not the first or the last in my time there — I shared my fears with my colleagues, who were all too aware of the dangers. “She might be pregnant,” I said, as if it were the first time we found girls and local women in this predicament. “How can a 12-year-old girl raise a child here, with the taboos her society had in store for her?”

Girls and boys in Sudan hold opposing status and favour. I would see this every afternoon, around 5 p.m. when the shops were closing. Boys would stand in front of the store hoping that the spaza shop owner would throw out some food to them, while the girls waited behind them in the hope that some of the scraps might be rejected by the boys or fall to the ground near them. Schools were predominantly for boys and girls were rarely allowed to attend school, depending on what the men of their family dictated permissible.

An aerial view of a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur.
An aerial view of a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur. // Photo supplied by Levinia Pienaar.

It was customary also for men to spend their afternoons sipping tea under a tree, while the boys played nearby and the women and girls would go into the village in search of work, like the highly-dangerous grinding of stone into gravel to produce building materials for the construction industry. The rule and order were clear: boys and men were important; girls and women were useful. In fact, animals were more valuable than women.

I formed relationships with the village people as I patrolled the village, and I appeared to gain some trust, evidenced when I engage in local educational awareness programmes.  Still, I always had to ask permission from the male community leaders, when we wanted to speak to the women about precautions they needed to take during pregnancy and to ensure overall sexual health. Even then, a few of the men would stay behind, afraid that “you make our women clever,” they would often say to me, “and they would not obey and respect us.” With time, we also came to understand that the men’s presence meant women would keep hush about any domestic violence they were suffering, afraid of what could await them at home if they spoke out.

The rule and order were clear: boys and men were important; girls and women were useful. In fact, animals were more valuable than women.

Back at the doctor’s office and with the consent of the girl’s mother we decided that she should receive antiretrovirals and emergency contraception. As a Catholic, our commonly-decided strategy left me uneasy.

I understand, respect and obey the gift of life. At the same time, I had seen so many children being born to girls and women, through incest and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. I was conflicted. I desperately wanted this young girl to have a future. But, I didn’t have easy answers and had seen and heard too many cases where girls fled from home in fear or were killed by male family members for dishonouring the family name.

The next day we accompanied the girl, her aunt and her mother to the doctor’s office. There, we scripted and rehearsed the story we would tell the girl’s grandfather upon her return. The aunt would go back home and say that the girl and donkey were still missing, leading the family to call for a search party. We would then say we “found” the girl, during our patrols, and take her back home, telling her grandfather that she had tried desperately to fight off the men who wanted to steal the donkey, but their strength had overcome hers.

I didn’t have easy answers and had seen and heard too many cases where girls fled from home in fear or were killed by male family members for dishonouring the family name.

Although Saint Maria Goretti’s story is one of gender-based sexual violence, I can still remember how her story was told to me as a child. While my catechist importantly lectured us about the primordial virtue of sexual abstinence until marriage and how important this was for “a good Catholic girl”, she also instilled a fear in us about sex. She offered us graphic descriptions about the process and dangers of abortion and the recriminations we would endure in society if we were to find ourselves pregnant as teenagers.

As far as I can remember, we had no conversation among ourselves that engaged our experience of our bodies. Much less, was anything said about the dignity of our sexuality or the beauty and pleasures of sexual relationships. Like it was for Goretti; the moral purpose of our young lives appeared to be that we not allow sexual pleasures to control our actions.

But, it was the portrayal of Goretti only as a victim – while her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, is seen a reformed sinner – that got me most. After she resisted her 20-year-old attacker’s advances, succumbed to 14 stabbings at his hand and forgave him in her dying moments – he was captured and served a 30-year prison sentence. Unrepentant at first, he later begged the forgiveness of his victim’s mother. Forgiven, he would later become a lay Capuchin brother and dedicate himself to a life of charity. But, why is it that even in the narrative retelling of a gross crime against a young girl, her male victim has the glorified end word?

Why is it that even in the narrative retelling of a gross crime against a young girl, her male victim has the glorified end word?

It seems little has changed in the experience of women, as my account of the 12-year-old Sudanese girl attests. We needed to ensure that the grandfather’s needs were satisfied if we were to protect the girl from any harm.

If you or someone you know has suffered or is suffering abuse please contact South Africa’s confidential toll-free Gender-Based Violence Command Centre 0800 428 428, SMS “STOP” to 0800 150 150 or dial *120*7867# on your cellphone.

For more national help centres visit the South African government’s page offering assistance to victims of violence: https://www.gov.za/faq/justice-and-crime-prevention/where-can-i-find-organisation-offers-assistance-victims-violence

* 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.

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Levinia Pienaar
Levinia Pienaar worked for the South African Police for 27 years, leaving as a captain in 2017. She has worked extensively to prevent violence against women and children and served as a UN peacekeeper in Sudan and South Sudan. She is a gender activist, photographer, filmmaker and is currently documenting the stories of women living in the rural Western Cape. She describes herself as a feminist.

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