Fighting for Justice: A Family at Odds

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M elissa* is a 24-year-old woman who grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She grew up with her grandmother since her parents always worked in and out of the city. She was raised on strict Christian values but her childhood was complicated. This is her story…

My parents would host parties at home in a bid to entertain guests and their workmates. I was only 11, and on this particular day, a close friend to my father decided it was too late to go back home after the party, so he was accommodated for the evening. Little did we know he had a plan that would change everyone’s life.

He shared a bedroom with my brother, which was close to mine. In the middle of the night, I felt something heavy on top of me and a hand cover my mouth. I caught a glimpse of who it was. My mind was racing. What was this person whom I regarded as my father doing? I felt a sharp pain on my private parts, and after a few minutes, he stepped [off] me and left the room.

As young as I was, I knew he was doing something wrong because my mother had told me that before anyone touches my body, he should first ask for permission. I also knew something was wrong because my pants were wet. I immediately went to my mother’s room with my blood-stained underwear in my hands and showed my mother. She asked me who had done it, and with shock she woke up my father. She was shocked and kept me in her bedroom while she called the police and also advised my brother to keep my father’s friend in the room. That was around 3 a.m. The police only came around 9 a.m., and all that time I was in my mother’s bedroom, so I did not know how the atmosphere was in the other room.

After the police came, I was asked to go to the hospital for check-ups, but the worst experience was the courtroom as I had to face the perpetrator and mention all that he had done. I do not remember much about the hospital experience, but during the court case, that is when I knew I was traumatised, especially after having to explain what had happened to me.

From the day of the rape to the day he was finally sentenced, what hurt most was that my father started insisting that the case be withdrawn and that he pay a lumpsum because he was family. My parents started to fight about it, and their relationship started to deteriorate.

I felt like I had not only been abused sexually, but I was now losing my parents and felt it was all my fault.

I would see them argue and fight all the time. He was basing the need of the lumpsum on culture, so he preferred cattle instead of pushing for justice for the wrong his friend had done. Fortunately, my mum would not let this case go, so she kept on pushing for justice to be served, and she kept on being present and was with me throughout the court cases and hospital visits.

Finally, justice was served, and he got slapped with a 10-year sentence, which was reduced to seven years. However, after this I faced loss of my family as my parents separated. What made it hurt mostly was because they had fought about this issue.

After this separation, my mum got stressed too, and her behaviour towards me changed. At one point, she said that “Ukugqoka kwako amamini skirts yikho okwenza uretshwa uzenza ohlakaniphileyo” (meaning ‘you like wearing miniskirts; that’s why you end up being raped’).

This comment was made years after the rape occurred, and it hurt me. I did not expect my mother to make such comments, and the words have stuck with me to date, and I felt like this whole experience was my fault. But I was just a kid. My aunty also suggested I get counselling, and my mother refused, saying I was just a kid and had no idea about what had happened.

How did the abuse affect you?

I did not want to be alone because I felt other kids could see I had been raped and in a courtroom. I would bite my fingers and had low self-esteem. I felt like the divorce my parents were going through was because of me. I learnt and read more about sexual abuse in high school. That’s when I started understanding more as to what had happened to me. Girls and boys around me would talk about it, and I started feeling like I really did not have that one thing that everyone had.

When I went to university, it was worse because people would share their experiences. I did not feel comfortable in my body, and even if I received a compliment, I would feel like someone had an ulterior motive to get something from me. Now I have trust issues because my father who was supposed to protect me initially failed to do, so I feel men will not protect women, so we have to protect ourselves.

How was it when you started dating?

I would get a lot of flashbacks because one moment I would be sitting with the guy I would be dating, and I would start seeing him as that one guy who abused me and caused harm. Dating was and is still a challenge. Some guys actually say, “Why do you refuse to sleep with me, yet you are not a virgin.” I opened up to one guy about the sexual abuse I had suffered as an 11-year-old, and it did not end well. Towards the end of the relationship, he used it against me. And from that time, I decided to keep it to myself till I find a safe space.

Did you end up getting counselling?

I did try to sign up for free sessions at a local centre, but when it was finally the right time to receive the service, I could not find the right words to say. I had a lot of emotions and felt no one would understand, so I decided to alternatively pen my feelings down.

I also became a bully because I just felt I had a void to cover. The bullying ended when I stabbed a guy [with a pen], and I was stripped of my prefect title after an argument where he called me a “b**ch.” To me, it was about the feelings that came after, so I took a pen and stabbed him in the back. My family never even knew I stabbed him and I would fight.

What happened to the perpetrator after his release?

I tried to look for him, but it was not fruitful. His former employer said they do not know him. All I wanted was to find out what was going on with him at that time. I know his name and his surname and even tried to look for him on social media. Again, it was fruitless. And some point, of course I wanted to fight him, but later on it was all about closure. My family never spoke about it, but I would want to talk about it from a victor side, not a victim.

Do you any advice for victims of sexual abuse?

The first step is to accept that it’s painful. Then take on your healing journey. Report it! No two ways about it; they have to face justice. But reporting won’t take away the pain, so after reporting, start your journey to healing.

Healing is a process. For some, it takes years; for some, it takes months, so don’t rush it. It’s not your fault that it happened, but now that it has happened, pick yourself up and take back your life. Be patient with yourself. The healing is messy because when you think you have healed, flashbacks start all over again, so be kind to yourself.

You might never find closure, or the person might never acknowledge their role in everything. Let them be. You are too precious to be going after damaged people. This might sound weird, but forgive them and let it go. You have no control over the next person, but you have control over your own life.

Talk about it more – how it made you feel – but with the right people. Healing is your portion. You deserve all things beautiful, and I wish you find healing and peace like I did. Don’t forget God. He heals. He loves. I love you.

*Melissa is a pseudonym

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