/ 2 December 2021

I am not giving up, says rape survivor Jess Foord

20211110 Rw55561
Fighting back: Jes Foord started a foundation to help others who have been raped and to work with people, particularly youngsters, on preventing sexual abuse. (Rogan Ward)

After Jes Foord’s ordeal walking her dogs in KwaZulu-Natal with her father in 2008, police moved swiftly and the rapists were put behind bars. Foord told Lyse Comins that she believes she had to get the horrific ‘degree in rape’ so that she could help thousands of sexual violence victims through her nonprofit foundation

What led you to start the Jes Foord foundation?

The reason the foundation started is when the incident [the rape] happened the community did a fundraising drive and put the money into a trust. The community wanted to use it for counselling but I had medical aid and that was covered, so they suggested we use it for a family holiday. East Coast Radio’s Big Favour show gave us a holiday and so we were not sure how to spend the money. 

I had heard the statistics that every 17 seconds, someone is raped in South Africa. I had felt so alone even though I had family and wanted to start a place for people who had no one.

What was your initial involvement with the foundation?

Our first office was at Link Hills Centre in Waterfall and then at the Heritage Centre in Hillcrest. When we started with the talks in schools we would have 10 boys and girls coming forward and that made me realise that we needed full-time counsellors, a full-time trauma counsellor and a social worker. We were inundated. We also have awareness counsellors and coordinators going out to feeding schemes, schools and churches.

What advice can you give to a woman who has been raped?

If you do not report a rape within three or four hours the DNA is lost so we are focused on awareness. It’s important to go immediately to one of the government’s Thuthuzela Care Centres. People hear “government hospital” and go “not going there” but they are beautifully run government facilities, separate from the hospital. Their nurses are amazing and they can provide women with the morning after pill and STD [sexually transmitted diseases] and antiretroviral medication, which it is vital to get within the first eight hours. 

After 72 hours you might as well not take them. If this happens to you don’t take hours to think about it. Please go for counselling because they have tools that will help you.

Why is it important to raise awareness of rape among children?

People ask us how we can talk to pre-schoolers about rape, but they are being groomed. We tell them that if Uncle Joe comes and rubs your leg, instead of leaving it, say “don’t touch my leg”. Most perpetrators are cowards and in 74% of cases the perpetrator is known to the victim.

What was your experience during the Covid-19 lockdown?

The perpetrators were not at work so there was a lot of opportunistic rape. They also stole booze during the rioting and the numbers shot up. We had children, girls and teenage boys coming to us. 

We give out 400 [rape care] bags a month to the Thuthuzela Care Centres and 60% of these bags are for children under the age of 12. We don’t have fundraising for that. We have to find 400 toothbrushes, body lotions and soaps and 1 200 sanitary pads. 

Our donors have been amazing. We are desperately trying to find people who can sponsor. Asmalls have been amazing, they sponsor all our face cloths. We literally have two months’ of funding. We could not do our annual ball and golf day and one of our big funders pulled funding because they redirected their funding to help people with the looting.

What is your view on the government’s focus on combating gender-based violence?

There are 300 000 DNA cases backlogged in the government laboratories. Those cases can’t be closed, or the perpetrator will be let out on bail or get away with it and with child rape the only chance of getting the perpetrator behind bars is the DNA evidence. It is horrific and that’s just a drop in the ocean of problems. 

People are not reporting rape because when they do come to the station the police are not interested. Some victims are told by their family not to worry about it because it’s the norm and the perpetrator is the sole breadwinner. 

Sometimes the perpetrator will tell the victim that “if you tell a soul I’m taking away all your food” and how as a mother should you be put in that situation?

What is the foundation’s project that is the closest to your heart?

We have a sewing project in Hammarsdale and a reading project, but the biggest programme closest to my heart is our mentorship programme where we take influential boys from the townships and meet them once a week. 

We teach about bullying and rape and that “no means no” and about different careers by taking them to places like a law firm or a car workshop. Our mentors all grew up in these townships — one is a policeman and another is a teacher — and they speak to the boys and work with them.

Unfortunately, we are living in a society that is teaching people how not to be raped rather than teaching how not to rape. Why are we teaching girls to go to the bathroom in pairs and not to wear short skirts? Ninety percent of the boys don’t have a father or have a father who works far away. The programme is sponsored by Jonsson Workwear.

It’s been 13 years since your gang rape attack. Tell me about the healing journey.

The biggest thing for people to understand is that there will be ups and downs and days you don’t think about it any more. You have duvet days, wake up and have flashbacks. You are allowed to stay in bed and feel sorry for yourself for the day but the next day you must get out of bed; don’t turn it into two days. 

It’s important to know you have done nothing wrong even if you were drunk and wearing a mini skirt. Trauma is like a ball of poison in the stomach. The more you talk and cry the smaller the ball of poison gets and it will [eventually] become a scar. 

How is your dad doing?

He is doing okay. He is the most relaxed, chilled person, but every now and then, on the anniversary of it, it hits him again. What he went through was worse than me … not being able to help your child who was three metres away. I feel it had to happen to me to get a degree in rape. There is no way I would have had the passion to connect with people to help them.

Forgiveness must be difficult. Is it a question one should even raise with a rape survivor? 

That was one of the questions I always was asked. I used to say to forgive is to forget, so I won’t forgive. But holding on to resentment is like holding on to hot ash with the intention of throwing it at ones who did it to you. 

If I am angry, is it doing anything to those five men? They’ve taken my body; I’m not going to let them take me. I still lie in bed and think, why me? Years later it comes back and you start crying because you smell something that reminds you.