#MiniMeToo breaks long silences

Childhood abuse victims are being encouraged to tell their stories to protect others. (Madelene Cronje/M&G)

Childhood abuse victims are being encouraged to tell their stories to protect others. (Madelene Cronje/M&G)

He remembers it as if it were yesterday. More than three decades since it ended, the memory is as fresh as it is painful: how, for four years, the man now married to his sister would come into his room at night and do things to him. He was “11 or 12”, he says, when it started.

“It was usually when everyone was asleep. Most of the time, he was pissed,” he recalls.

But it was not only when they were alone that it took place.

“During school holidays, my mother and I would visit [him and my sister]. And there were nights I would wake up finding him jerking off over me — with my mother sleeping in the same room,” he says.

Nor was the perpetrator’s heavy drinking solely to blame.

“Sometimes, I would be showering and he would come into the bathroom, pull the shower curtain back and just stand there, watching me, jerking off.”

The four years of sexual abuse, he says, became “more intense”.

“He would get quite violent with me. Sometimes I’d have bruises all over my body. I’d go to school the next day and couldn’t take my clothes off, because people would ask where the bruises came from. So I would pretend to be sick. The first time he penetrated me, I was bleeding and it was … I don’t know … hectic. Really hectic.”

Now 50 years old, he has still not fully come to terms with the sexual abuse. Nor does he wants his identity revealed. In this story, we will identify him only as “James”.

James says the reaction from his family was “the worst part”.

“The weird thing with families is that they don’t know what to do with this information, especially when years have passed. They have an attitude of: ‘Oh well, it happened so long ago, let’s just … you know.’ I felt completely rejected. Worthless, I’d say. Basically, the message I got was: ‘Shut up and get help.’ Nobody wanted to speak about it.”

In the hopes of breaking the silence about child sexual abuse, the #MiniMeToo campaign was launched this week. The social media campaign is spearheaded by Women and Men Against Child Abuse, in partnership with the South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, Rays of Hope, Community Hours South Africa and Open Disclosure. Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has also pledged his support.

Piggybacking on the #MeToo movement, which encourages adults globally to share their long-held stories of sexual abuse, the local #MiniMeToo campaign aims to “give children a voice and the courage to come forward and report abuse”. The organisers hope to conduct awareness-raising conversations at schools around the country.

According to the organisers, the campaign does not encourage minors to speak about their personal experiences on social media, “so as not to identify children who have been abused or assaulted”. It will, however, connect those who wish to report abuse with experts.

“The hashtag #MiniMeToo is a means of sending a message to children, to assure them that they have the right to speak out, that they must not bear the guilt or shame of what an adult or peer has done to them, that they have the right to justice and support to recover from abuse, and to reassure them that there are trustworthy adults who will comfort and guide them through that recovery,” reads a statement issued after the launch.

Miranda Jordan-Friedmann, the director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, says the movement is also aimed at adults.

“Our message to adults is simple: protect our children. Respect their bodies. Ensure other adults do the same. Listen to children’s complaints. Speak out on their behalf when they have been abused. Never protect a child abuser, even if it is a family member or friend,” the statement continues.

“We [also] want offenders to know: you have betrayed the child. It is up to you to bear the shame and guilt of that act. It is your life that must be forever changed by your abominable actions.”

Until last week, perpetrators of sexual abuse that took place more than 20 years ago were in effect allowed to go unpunished because survivors had no legal recourse — unless the abuse amounted to rape.

Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act differentiated between rape and other forms of sexual assault and held that, whereas rape may be prosecuted at any time, sexual abuse crimes are limited to 20 years. This meant that victims had to lay charges against their abusers within this period.

But a Constitutional Court judgment last week has lifted this 20-year time limit, because the court has found section 18 unconstitutional and invalid.

READ MORE: ConCourt ruling offers sexual abuse survivors opportunity of ‘getting justice’

The unanimous judgment said: “Although rape is the most reprehensible form of sexual assault, other forms of sexual abuse also constitute a humiliating, degrading and brutal invasion of the dignity and the person of the survivor. Sexual abuse in all forms, not only rape, infringes [on] the survivor’s right to bodily and psychological integrity.”

The case was brought by the “Frankel Eight”. Nicole Levenstein, Paul Diamond, George Rosenberg, Katherine Rosenberg, Daniela McNally, Lisa Wegner, Shane Rothquel and Marinda Smith have accused billionaire businessperson and socialite Sidney Frankel of sexually abusing them when they were children.

Frankel died in 2017. But Rees Mann, the founder of South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says: “This ruling gives all people who were abused more than 20 years ago the power and the authority to get justice. This empowers male and female survivors with the opportunity of getting justice. This is not only about getting the justice they deserve, but also about putting the power in their hands to make the choice to lay charges or not. Prior to this, the choice was removed from them.”

A 2015 study published in the Child Abuse Review journal found that delays in disclosing child sexual abuse are common, some for up to 49 years. The study also revealed there was no consistent relationship between the severity of abuse and the moment a victim discloses it.

Aware that it will take much more than a social media campaign to end the scourge of child abuse, Johann van den Heerden, the #MiniMeToo campaign’s digital strategist, concedes: “This campaign is not necessarily a solution. If we had the solution, it would have been executed. We realise the problem is way more complex … Child abuse is one of those problems that doesn’t [just] require a digital strategist … to come up with a clear-cut plan. It is about society waking up and speaking out.”

Van den Heerden adds that, for survivors, families, organisations and even governments, dealing with the issue of sexual abuse often “feels too big”. But this feeling that it is too big is what “makes it so easy to put it under a blanket; is what hides it”, he says.

Close on three decades after his family found out about his abuse, James still faces an uphill battle in getting them to lift the blanket on what happened to him. And although they have backtracked on their threat to disown him if he ever spoke out about it, he says: “I’m still getting resistance from them.”

Still, he persists. “I realised this is bullshit, actually. By keeping quiet, I am agreeing with the silence. Now, I’m like: ‘No, the problem is not me speaking about this. The problem is what he did to me. That’s the problem here.’”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian 

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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