United We Shall Stand in South Africa

Content note: this post contains references to sexual violence.

South Africa is a fascinating country with integrated cultures, beliefs and traditions, painted with exquisite coastlines and majestic mountain ranges. But there is a very dark and complex shadow following this fair face.

In South Africa, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours.

In 2015, 55.5% of South Africans were living in an appalling state of poverty, with no food, clean water or proper housing. That’s 13 million children living in poverty. The sad reality is that many of the South Africans who could make a difference are too far removed and unaware of the dangers that exist in our townships. We believe we are faced with the issues on a daily basis, but are often oblivious to the reality of the circumstances and brutality people are facing around the country.

All around us, women are the victims of sexual crimes. All around us, women are being murdered. Earlier this year, a student was brutally raped and murdered on the outskirts of a very elite town, and the whole country was up in arms. Influential and successful people spoke out against the crime.

But, my fellow South Africans, this has been happening for many, many years to girls and women all over our country. The only difference is that there is no funding, media outlets or organisations willing to help when the victims live in poverty. It is deeply disturbing that privileged South Africans only start realizing the severity of a problem once the monster creeps into their own circle. I too am guilty of this.

Why don’t we hear about the little girls who are abducted and raped while walking home from school, or the countless victims of gang-rape in the townships? I’ve struggled to find accurate statistics for this blog, as the government has not funded any research for years.

Gender-based crimes need to become a priority in South Africa.

Last month, a spark of hope was ignited when South Africans united in a plea to have all charges dropped against the courageous ‘Lion Mama’. She had caught three men raping her daughter near her home. She killed one and severely injured the other two. Social media was flooded by support and crowd-funding to help with her legal fees.

It’s time to get real. We too often believe that it can’t happen to us, or that sexual harassment has never happened to anyone close to us. Do we subconsciously stay distanced from the ugly reality for our own sanity?

In the light of the recent #MeToo movement on social media, I think many of us were shocked by the scale of sexual harassment that has happened right in front of our eyes, to people we thought we knew well. To me, this is the first step in changing our attitudes –  becoming aware of what is going on around us.

Let’s face the reality of the situation. 

Women and girls are crying out for help. Becoming aware of abuse taking place around us can drive us to make a change and offer a helping hand to those who need one. We each have resources that others may not have, so let’s use our individual privileges to shed some light. To the girls in South Africa who need a safe haven: this country and the authorities might let you down, but I never will.

Interaction, education and communication are golden. So, this is my call to fellow South Africans as well as people around the world: let’s become more aware, get more involved and speak up more loudly about the wrong doings in our communities. Don’t get caught up in your own bubble – there are so many people out there that need us. Let’s stand together and protect each other. Let’s form a united front that nobody can hurt, damage or break.

We are women.
We are powerful.
We are fearless.

United we shall stand – a phrase that can no longer be just a line from our national anthem.

CDC’s Infographic and the Double Standard of Behavior


A man has a beer and is featured in TV commercials. He’s cool, he’s “one of the guys.” But time and time again, women are called out, shamed, and even blamed for the behavior of others for doing the same thing.

In 2013, Hong Kong Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok appealed to young ladies to stop drinking too much because of the increase in rape cases. The Missoula Montana Police Department has a history of blaming rape victims for alcohol use, and Crimewatch creator Nick Ross suggested that “not all rape is rape” when the victim is drunk. Now, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has released this infographic in their monthly Vital Signs report.

The CDC infographic intends to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). As the CDC states, “alcohol use during pregnancy, even within the first few weeks and before a woman knows she is pregnant, can cause lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime.”

Understanding the harmful effects of alcohol during pregnancy and even the time in which you are trying to get pregnant is important, but, to me, the infographic suggested even more.

It warned women that “drinking too much” can lead to violence, illnesses, STIs, and unplanned pregnancies. Can men not also experience violence, illnesses, STIs, and unplanned pregnancies if they drink too much? Where is the caution poster that reads: Drinking too much can have many risks for men? This is a clear double standard where women are warned for a behavior that also causes harm to men.

While I respect the good intentions in seeking to prevent FASDs, I am outraged by the suggestion, yet again, that women are responsible for the actions of others. Rather than emphasizing that the decreased control alcohol induces could potentially lead to negative outcomes, this poster implies that because women drink, they get pregnant or experience violence – forgetting the other individuals involved, who may also have been drinking.

This infographic lends itself to a wide collection of victim-blaming propaganda that suggest women should not dress “provocatively” or walk alone at night, or blame women for the violence and sexual assault they experience. Women should not be told their actions are the reason someone else acted upon them.

We should not have to tell women to be more careful, but we do, and in doing so we put the burden on them to not be assaulted – because if they are, it’s somehow their fault. Perhaps instead of cautioning women rather than perpetrators, this infographic should be added to a growing collection of measures we take to highlight how prevalent violence against women is and how everyone – men and women alike – can end and prevent violence against women.

Next time, CDC, I highly suggest creating two campaigns – one about the negative relationship between drinking and pregnancy and another that warns all people about the potential harmful effects of drinking. To warn women about a harmful behavior without similarly warning men is a ridiculous and unacceptable double standard.

Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula is a brutal – and important – read.

Jon Krakauer has an impressive bibliography. Into Thin Air, about the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest; Into the Wild, the tragedy of Christopher McCandless, who undertook a fatal adventure into the Alaskan wilderness; Under The Banner of Heaven, an in-depth investigation of the religious-fueled murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby, to name a few.

MissoulaSmallInitially, Missoula seems a departure from Krakauer’s usual fare. Named for the town in which it is set, Missoula, Montana, Krakauer explores the shocking events that prompted a 2012 investigation. Young women reported a rash of rapes (some committed by members of the town’s beloved football team) and an abysmal failure to prosecute them.

In Missoula, there is no wilderness, no adventure and little inspiration. Instead, it is a setting dominated by violence, frustrating legal loopholes, never-ending procedures and ultimately, a lack of any real resolution.

Yet Missoula is just as gripping, visceral, timely and full of heartbreakingly human characters as any of his other works. And like his other books, it forces us to re-examine how we treat the people around us and the values we claim to uphold.

Krakauer does not spare his readers any details; we are forced to confront the horror of what the girls in Missoula went through. He describes what it is like for Allison Huguet to fall asleep on a childhood friend’s sofa after a party, then wake up to find him moaning while he rapes her. Kelsey Belnap details swimming in and out of consciousness, finding someone forcing her to perform oral sex, and then later waking to herself bent over a bed while men come in and out of the room to have sex with her. He recounts the violent assault of Kaitlyn Kelly, whose attacker leaves her sheets and mattress covered in blood after violently jamming his fingers into her repeatedly, and steals her jeans when he leaves to brag about his sexual conquest. Perhaps harder to read, he reports how hard each girl has to fight for each assault to be recognized, and watch as some of the perpetrators wriggle free of real punishment, aided by a system sympathetic to them.

Critics have noted that Krakauer has clearly taken sides in the book. While Krakauer may not hide his empathy for the victims in the book, what critics may not realize is the extent to which art is reflecting life. Rape victims who go public face incredible hostility, undergo humiliation and very seldom is there justice at the end of the road. (Even after the publication of the book, the girls are fighting opposition. Kristen Pabst, a lawyer painted in an unflattering light for her actions during the trials of the boys, attempted to smear Belnap’s image in response.)

Krakauer also brings up the case of Brian Banks, who was falsely accused of rape. He was eventually exonerated after 5 years in prison, but as an athlete, it robbed him of 5 crucial years in his career, not to mention the emotional trauma he underwent.

Krakauer notes that the incidence of false rape is said to be around 2-8% and writes, quite compellingly:

“It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape…And without question the former happens much more frequently than the latter.”

Krakauer wrote the book after finding out that a friend had been sexually assaulted twice in her lifetime. Said Krakauer, “I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain. My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”

Ignorance about rape in general is astounding – so embedded is rape culture that some rapists don’t realize they’ve committed it. Krakauer reports a 2009 study in which researchers asked enlisted Navy a group of questions, careful not to include the word ‘rape’ to see the responses:

Have you attempted to have sexual intercourse with a female when she didn’t want to by giving her alcohol or drugs but you did NOT succeed?

Have you made a female have sexual intercourse by giving her alcohol or drugs or getting her high or drunk?

Have you attempted to have sexual intercourse with a female when she didn’t want to by threatening or using some degree of force but you did NOT succeed?

Have you made a female have sexual intercourse by using some degree of force or threatening to harm her?

Have you made a female do other sexual things like anal sex, oral sex, or putting fingers or objects inside of her or you by using some degree of force or threatening to harm her?

13% answered yes to at least one of the questions. They did not consider what they had done rape. Rape was seen as strangers jumping out of bushes. “Nice guys” didn’t rape.

It is little surprise, with an accepted entitlement to others’ bodies, vicious retaliation against victims who speak out and thin hope of conviction, that rape remains such a pervasive phenomenon.

Indeed, what is the most tragic about Missoula, as noted in the book itself, is that Krakauer didn’t choose to focus on the town because it was an exception in its level of sexual assault. Missoula, in fact, has a lower-than-average rate of sexual assault.

The fact that this is happening with such frequency, in so many places, and remains such, is as Krakauer says, “that’s the real scandal.”

If you are a victim of sexual assault, search here for an international directory of helplines. 

MissoulaCover image by Ryan Polei, licenced under creative commons.

The Repetition Compulsion: Why Rape Victims Are More Likely To Be Assaulted Again

In a society where the subject of rape is still taboo, the idea of even one attack is hard to grasp. The idea of multiple attacks seems far beyond probability.

This makes it unimaginably hard for the considerable number of victims who do undergo multiple sexual assaults.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon. A little known fact is that being sexually assaulted puts you at a much higher risk of being assaulted again in the future, as does childhood sexual abuse.

Sometimes referred to as revictimization, it is not exclusive to sexual assault. Victims of domestic violence are more likely to undergo it a second time. Even robberies and burglaries seem to be self-propogating (and significantly so. Being robbed once places you at a nine times higher risk of being robbed again, and being burgled means you have four times more reason to lock up your house.)

Being sexually assaulted greatly increased the risk of future assaults, with one study purporting that being sexually assaulted once meant a woman was 35 times more likely than others to be revictimized.

“The percentage of women who were raped as children or adolescents and also raped as adults was more than two times higher than the percentage among women without an early rape history.”
– National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010, CDC

What contributes to this devastating, but common pattern?

There are several theories, and it varies from woman to woman. Women who were sexually abused as children have learned silence, and may be unable to enforce appropriate boundaries, given their childhood experiences. Some theorize that it is a way of attempting to master anxiety or trauma. Some suggest that traumatization may cause some to revert to familiar patterns, despite whatever pain it may cause. And some others suggest that women who have been assaulted early learn to associate sex with pain and trauma, and therefore are less likely to be able to distinguish between consent or coercion.

Despite the relative devastation of each crime, we’re far more likely to offer sympathy to repeat victims of a burglary. It is easier to imagine being appalled when someone, once again, comes home to a broken window. Yet, we’d be more skeptical if someone claimed that they’d been raped a second time.

With rape, it can be more difficult to grasp in part because of the culture surrounding sexual assault. A victim is very often disbelieved once. After multiple instances, a forced sexual encounter is seen as their fault, be it the way they dress, the way they conduct themselves or how much they drank. An easy answer is to assume they are trying to cover up regretted sexual encounters, or that they misunderstand the concept of rape.

The stigma against rape contributes to women’s compulsion to repeat their traumas. Chris O’Sullivan, Senior Research Associate at Safe Horizon, explained that one recurring theme throughout his research in the area was that women were likely to take responsibility for the original assault.

“They were so full of self-blame and shame from the original assault that they felt unable to act on their own behalf during the later sexual assault victimization.”

Sullivan also emphasized that revictimization, despite its nature, was never the victim’s fault.

Women may take years to recover from a sexual assault. Being assaulted multiple times can compound the trauma. Sexual assault victims are much more likely to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, develop PTSD, self-harm or use maladaptive coping strategies such as eating disorders or substance abuse. The repetition compulsion is a phenomenon that still confounds researchers in terms of successful interventions, but that doesn’t mean that informal, but steady support from friends or family won’t be effective in any victim’s recovery process.

To learn how to support a rape victim, or to get help yourself:

  • RAINN offers a hotline for victims or friends & family, resources on how to seek help and a list of international organizations.
  • Pandora’s Project is an online network for survivors of sexual violence.
  • Take Back The Night has online resources and communities, and organizes events internationally for survivors and advocates.

Featured image: Photo by flckr user Christian, licenced under creative commons

When Time Stood Still: A Story of Courage, Survival, and Healing

Once in a while a book comes around that will have a profound impact on the lives of others. In a rare combination of personal reflection and professional insight, When Time Stood Still is a book that will not only assist in the healing of survivors, but also in public acknowledgement and understanding of childhood sexual abuse.

​The prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine in the world, as many victims are too young or vulnerable to disclose the experience. According to the Children Assessment Centre (CAC), an estimated 500,000 children were born in the US in 2014 will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Statistics available state that child rape occurs every two minutes and that 90 percent of molesters abuse children they know. Adult retrospective studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. This translates to more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse living in the US.

When Time Stood Still is a rare experience, not only for the authors, but for readers.

Survivors of abuse face numerous long-term negative effects, such as eating disorders, substances abuse disorders, sexual dysfunction, and most commonly experience guilt, shame, depression, relationship difficulties, and/or other types of dissociative disorders. Historically, there have been two broad approaches to the treatment of child sexual abuse: a victim advocacy/child welfare approach and a family-systems model. However, over the last two decades there have been a number of clinicians and researchers who have studied and developed new comprehensive treatment models. One such model is uniquely described in When A Time Stood Still.

When Time Stood Still gives readers a “living picture” of the use of art therapy in treating child sexual abuse in conjunction with professional therapeutic dialogue. With astonishing courage and bravery, Ziv Koren, a 36 year-old social worker, who was sexually abused by her uncle from ages 6 till 16, shares her personal story of recovery. The book lays out full narratives, including email exchanges between Ziv and Professor Rachel Lev-Wiesel, PhD., founder and head of the Graduate School of Creative Arts Therapies & the director of The Emili Sagol CAT Research Center at the University of Haifa.

While Ziv had never drawn in her life, she was encouraged to take much of the written material she had created over the past six years of therapy and translate them into art. In the first half of the book, readers are given the unique opportunity to not only see the drawings created – which at times can be very difficult to view – but to read the exchange between therapist and survivor as they try to determine what emotions and memories are exemplified within the art. Readers travel with Ziv as she moves from a state of dissociation and detachment from her past, to a full confrontation with her memories, as well as with her perpetrator.

The second part of the book presents and summarizes the current data on the uniqueness of childhood sexual abuse, including the five “traumagenic constructs” that Prof. Lev-Wiesel introduced to the field: Soul’s Homelessness, Captured in Time, Entrapped in Distorted Intimacy, Betrayal Entrapment, and Reenactment.

It is clear from the very first drawing that Ziv and Prof. Lev-Wiesel were embarking on an incredible journey of healing. Throughout their time together, Ziv created about 60 drawings, each reflecting various times of the abuse, unconscious symbols of pain, and integration of body and mind. Thanks to an intensive and continuous relationship with Prof. Lev-Wiesel, Ziv began to transform, healing the severe symptoms of her trauma. She became less addicted to pornography and ended S&M sexual relationships. She began to sleep for longer hours, and taking better care of her nutrition, hygiene and appearance. And after 20 years, Ziv was able to confront her uncle and see him clearly as a perpetrator and someone who hurt her.

When Time Stood Still is a rare experience, not only for the authors, but for readers. Insight into such personal trauma can, at times, feel overwhelming and too personal, as if someone’s personal diary was placed in your hands. It will not only assist professionals to better understand the uniqueness of child sexual abuse, the resulting trauma, and the healing process, but will give much to survivors and those seeking to learn more about abuse. Thanks to Ziv’s persistence and bravery, the unique tool of art was uncovered that will assist therapists working with victims of trauma. And it will no doubt, help countless of survivors.

The book can be purchased on Amazon in Paperback, Kindle, or E-Book.


Professor Rachel Lev-Wiesel, PhD. has been a therapist helping survivors of child sexual abuse for over 30 years, and has published 130 scientific papers and chapters on trauma, child abuse, sexual abuse, and the use of drawings for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. 

Ziv Koren, MA, is a social worker and art therapist at the unit for treatment of released prisoners in the Ministry of Social Welfare, in Israel.

The Women of ISIS

One of the most frequently mentioned names in the news today is ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has seized international attention through acts of unusual barbarity, often filmed and distributed as terrorist propaganda. ISIS is not merely an extremist minority, but a powerful network of organized militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.

​ISIS’s culture of fear and control is not only aimed at the West, but at the citizens of the areas they have claimed. Women in particular have become targets under ISIS’s strict edicts, with their expectations and roles strictly defined by extremist ideology.

A manifesto published by the group, written with the aim of outlining the role of women, gives a glimpse into life under ISIS rule. Though it deviates somewhat from a radical portrayal of Islamic laws – women are allowed a limited amount of education, are allowed unescorted out of the house under specific conditions, and are provided for in the case of widowhood – it is nonetheless an extremely misogynistic and repressive doctrine.

Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.

“The central thesis of this statement,” states the manifest, “is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.”

Subsequently, it outlines how best women can carry out this duty. Girls are to be educated to the extent that they can adequately raise their children and instruct their families, with education stopping at age 15. Girls are also considered ready for marriage at a mere nine years old.

The UN published a report on the acts of violence carried out on women. Lashings for deviating from established rules, executions for adultery, and the well-documented capture and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi women are among ISIS’s growing lists of human rights violations. Disturbingly, the punishments meted out, and those in charge of brothels are often women themselves.

The al-Khansaa Brigade is the group’s moral police and consists entirely of women. While this seems to stand in contrast to ISIS’s assertion that women should first and foremost be wives and mothers, women are, even in the manifesto, permitted to fight for Islam.

An expert on Islamic militancy, Thomas Hegghammer, told The Atlantic, “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one.” Indeed, ISIS actively works to recruit women. Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.  Little is understood about what is drawing women to the besieged region, but ISIS’s campaign is proving disturbingly effective.

As bizarre as it is perverse, ISIS’s relationship with women is complex, but wholly exploitative.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons