A cowed child reflects on us all

Gender-based violence: it is a useful term. After all, we need a portmanteau phrase to capture the panoply of horrors visited on women in our country. Violence that finds its expression through sexual assault, spousal abuse and “corrective” rape is so widespread in places rich and poor that activists, researchers and policymakers can be forgiven for trying to find a catch-all term. It helps us to name a complex of issues and secure it within a framework of problems and possible solutions.

Necessary words then, but also anaesthetising ones.

This week, careful reporting by our Eugene Saldanha fellow, Kwanele Sosibo, cuts through our numbness to the human and institutional failure — indeed the systemic and structural violence — at the heart of the unspeakable brutality that our society not only tolerates, but encourages.

The outlines of the story have been published before. A 15-year-old girl from Thohoyandou in Limpopo was beaten for stealing clothes from a neighbour, the assault captured on cellphone cameras. Another case of mob justice.

Sosibo’s account, based on testimony from the child, her family, law enforcement officials and community members, as well as video footage, is a much more complex, and awful, story.

The child, who we have called Ndadza to protect her identity, was sexually abused by her stepfather. An everyday sort of horror, in wealthy and impoverished communities. Her mother defended him (“he did not enter her”) — the sort of betrayal repeated daily by mothers who live in fear of their husbands — and the police dragged their heels over his arrest, as police do every day where violence against women is concerned.

That abuse, not surprisingly, triggered rebellious and erratic behaviour in Ndadza, including breaking into nearby homes.

One Friday afternoon in late July, while wearing clothes she had stolen, she was captured by two boys, one of them a 17-year-old distant cousin, who called his father to the scene.

They proceeded to strip Ndadza and the father of the boy then beat the girl savagely with a hammer, an ordeal that stretched over a period of about six hours. The boy filmed the attack on his cellphone, panning slowly over her battered nakedness and pulling back to show blows raining down.

When the police eventually arrived and found Ndadza bound, naked and bleeding, they arrested her for housebreaking instead of taking her straight to the hospital.

It was five days before her assailants were arrested.

Meanwhile, the torture pornography captured by cellphone circulated widely in the community and beyond. Police officers who visited the village on Women’s Day might have been expected to confiscate phones as evidence. Instead they encouraged villagers to delete the clip.

The official police account denies all this. It also defies credulity.

This is a story of failure, worse, of complicity by everyone who had a moral and legal responsibility to protect Ndadza: her family, her neighbours, the police. It is a story of failure by us all.

We need harder words to wake us from our slumber.

Read the story here

Read the second half of the editorial “Arms and the man” here

Keep the powerful accountable

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