Bianca Shabalala*, 16, was sitting on her bed, reading a book for her English class when her stepfather suddenly barged into the room.
He pushed her down onto the bed, pressing a brown switchblade against her side.
It wasn’t the first time.
“You think I’d feed you with my hard-earned money for nothing?” he snarled and began to kiss her while tearing off her white T-shirt.
As he began removing his trousers, Bianca managed to pull the knife out of his hand.
Two years later, from the edge of a metal-wire chair in a women and children’s shelter, she recalls: “Without thinking, I then plunged the blade into his chest.”
Now 18, Bianca is settling into her new temporary home, the Grace Help Centre in Mooinooi, a mining town in the North West.
“I thought that day was going to be my last day, I was going to die.”
In 2020, the North West province had the highest rates of sexual violence in South Africa. In Rustenburg, a 30-minute drive from the Grace Help Centre, almost a quarter of women had experienced sexual violence a 2019 study found — close to one in ten girls had encountered this type of violence by age 15.
Over 22 000 sexual offences against children were reported to the South African Police Service in 2019.
But it’s likely that the numbers are an underrepresentation, because many youngsters are unable to report abuse by someone close to them — either out of fear or because they don’t realise that they’re being abused.
Bianca lived with her grandmother before moving in with her mother and stepfather in Marikana, about 10 kilometres north of Mooinooi, when she was 11 years old.
“When I first moved in, it was fine. But things changed when I started growing up,” she says. “His way towards me changed; the way he’d look at me when my mom wasn’t there. I didn’t make sense of it; I thought maybe it was just what fathers do.”
Knowing right from wrong
Comprehensive sexuality education has been part of the Life Orientation (LO) curriculum in South African public schools since 2000.
But several studies have pointed out that taking a moral approach such as the so-called “ABC” (abstain, be faithful and condomise) route doesn’t work — and schools are failing to implement the lessons as they should.
Instead, the comprehensive approach teaches learners not only about safe sex to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections but also deals with relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation and how personality is formed.
The most recent revision of South Africa’s LO curriculum — introduced in 2019 — specifically includes lessons on sexual abuse. Research shows such sessions can help learners identify inappropriate advances from adults and so help prevent abuse.
“He always used to want me by his side,” remembers Bianca. “Even if my mother was there.”
It would be simple things, she says, like having to help him up off the floor if he fell down when drunk, or asking her to sit on his lap so he could massage her hair.
She told her mother of her discomfort, but her stepdad’s actions were dismissed as “fatherly love”.
Bianca felt trapped: “I didn’t have anyone who could help me.”
A pattern of abuse
Bianca’s stepfather tried to rape her for the first time on her 16th birthday. Her mother was out looking for work, which left her home alone with him.
He entered the kitchen and presented her with a birthday cake. Then he told her to get naked.
He leaned in to whisper quietly: “We can do this nicely, it won’t have to be hard. Just let me do my job and then everything will be fine. Your mom won’t have to know about it, it’s going to be between me and you.”
Just then came a neighbour’s fortuitous knock at the door, which summoned her stepfather away.
When he returned, he growled at her in Zulu: “It’s your lucky day. It’s going to be me and you sometime, someone won’t always be here.”
As he walked away, Bianca remained on the bed crying.
She was still lying there when she tried to tell her mother what happened later that evening.
But the response wasn’t what she’d hoped for.
Bianca recalls: “My mom said, ‘Don’t report him. He’s the breadwinner. If you report him, then where will we stay?’”
Her mother promised she’d make sure he wouldn’t do it again, so Bianca agreed to let it go.
But a few months later, it happened again.
According to the Children’s Act, the age of consent in South Africa is 16.
Although it is not a crime for children between the ages of 12 and 15 to have sex with someone their age, if an adult has sex with a child younger than 16, it is considered statutory rape.
But it’s an abstract issue and often something children struggle to understand. If it’s not explained properly and kids don’t know their rights, it leaves them open to exploitation.
Looking back, Bianca realises that her abuse started even before it turned sexual. When she was 15, her stepfather tried to keep her from going out and even wanted her to stop going to school.
She remembers: “He beat me physically, hard and badly. It’s like he was obsessed with me.
“He wouldn’t want me to go to the shops with my mom because he was worried that people would see that something is wrong with me because I had scars all over.”
Getting the lesson right
The high rate of abuse against women and children — which President Cyril Ramaphosa has called “a devastating epidemic” — spurred the government to publish a national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide in March 2020.
Part of this plan is to integrate more programmes in schools — for both girls and boys — to address gender-based violence.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to go on when it comes to how well South Africa’s national syllabus is faring at achieving the same results — but there is international evidence to support rolling out this more holistic approach to sex ed.
It doesn’t have to all fall on teachers and external groups can help out — but it can’t be simply dropping in and running a few lessons on topics such as relationship dynamics and what abuse looks like.
In 2020, What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls, a research group that evaluated how well sex ed programmes work, found long-term programmes have much more success.
For example, part of the four-year Share study in Uganda helped young people understand safe sex and navigate power imbalances in relationships. After three years into the programme, women who were part of the group that received the intervention were 20% less likely to experience physical or sexual violence from a partner.
At the moment, though, LO class is the only school-based sex education students get. But if teachers don’t take it seriously, students don’t either, a 2011 study from eight high schools in North West showed, meaning a valuable opportunity to address abuse is lost.
To Bianca, LO class was a lifesaver. Hearing her teacher describe examples of abuse in a lesson, the pieces fell into place.
She says: “It’s because of the information that I got from school in LO that I realised what he was doing was not right.”
Given the amount of time they spend with learners, teachers can help to change the course of child sexual abuse. In South Africa, educators also have a legal obligation to do so.
But they often don’t know what to look for, how to start a conversation about abuse or how to go about reporting it, a 2017 survey of primary school teachers in the Western Cape showed.
The department of basic education runs workshops to train LO teachers on how to present the new sex ed lesson plans, and is currently piloting the approach at a few schools. The new syllabus was supposed to go live nationally in 2020, but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not clear exactly when the new launch date will be for the remaining schools.
One such school is Matsukubyane Secondary in Kanana village, an hour’s drive away from the shelter where Bianca stays. Selina Mautle is the Grade 8 LO teacher and attended her first training session towards the end of 2021.
She believes LO lessons should create a caring space where learners feel safe to talk to their teacher. To get to that point, she says, teachers at school need to step up.
“An external person will come here and address the learners for an hour or two and then maybe leave their contact details. But then what’s going to happen?” she asks.
The training she’s receiving as part of the education department’s pilot programme teaches her how to talk to kids about sex. Although creating trust between learners and teachers to discuss sex can be complex, she says “at least I’m having that conversation and building that relationship with them”.
Aside from her mother, Bianca’s teacher was the first one she felt comfortable enough to confide in.
“I used to be a top learner in my class, but my grades began dropping and my teacher noticed,” Biana explains. “She asked me what was going on, but I didn’t want to tell her because my mom said if I told anyone then she would disown me.”
Bianca’s teacher wasn’t simply checking in; she’d been building a relationship with her for years.
“We would eat together at break time and she would share advice about life. She was more like a mother to me. It was really easy to talk to her.”
Learning to be a survivor
After school, Bianca gathers in the garden with four other girls at Grace Help Centre who are completing high school, like she is. They sit around a mosaic-tiled table, with the sun sparkling off the silver studs in Bianca’s shirt.
Sitting quietly, she thinks back to the day of her assault.
She remembers how, after hitting back, she ran past the platinum mine dumps surrounding her home. She ignored the whirring sounds of the machinery nearby and avoided any bystanders as she made her way through Marikana’s dusty streets.
It took her almost an hour to get to the police station.
Eventually, after two hours of waiting and replaying what had happened in her room, she made a statement and two officers escorted her home to the scene of the crime. But when they got there, the room was empty and her stepfather was gone.
If it wasn’t for the trail of blood, the police may not have believed her.
“He’d packed his clothes, everything that was his was gone,” she explains.
In the end, Bianca’s pushback did not seriously injure her perpetrator, but it was enough to buy her time.
“I didn’t stab him deeper because I was nervous and scared. I just stabbed him so he could stop.”
The police searched for Bianca’s perpetrator afterwards, but couldn’t find him. Her mom shut her out, angry that her daughter had spoken out.
Bianca eventually broke down and confided in her teacher, who took her to a nearby clinic to be examined and also connected her with a social worker.
She spent the entire trip crying, until she heard the social worker say: “Don’t worry, you’re not going back home.”
“Why?” Bianca asked. “It’s not like he raped me.”
In her mind, the incident with her stepfather hadn’t seemed that serious — until her teacher told her otherwise.
“They sat me down and said: ‘Do you realise that [after] what he did, he could do even worse? Next time, he might kill you.’”
*Not her first name.