Women’s Silence and Sexual Violence: Struggles to ‘Get’ Stories and Read Silence

When the disclosure of personal or sensitive matter can be met with repercussions that further victimise or punish deponents, cause shame or instigate compensation demands, silence, for many women, may be a pragmatic choice made in one’s best interest—and a particular challenge for a truth commission. Recognising the limitation of cathartic truthtelling for women’s engagement in the South African TRC, Ross argues that ‘it is not necessarily a universal or transhistorical model and does not take account of the diversity of ways in which experience is articulated or otherwise made known and addressed’ (2010: 81). Rather, many women choose silence over testimony:

In contexts in which women are often blamed for the harm they experience, especially when that harm is sexual, it ought not be surprising that many would prefer not to speak, or find themselves unable to do so, particularly when doing so incriminates not just another individual, but a set of cultural assumptions and the social forms that they shape. It takes courage both to speak of harms done and to be silent in their face and aftermath. (Ross 2010: 81)

Arriving at the TRC in 2011, the research manager tasked me to research the occurrence and circumstances of conflict-related sexual violence. Until then, the commission had collected minimal statements pertaining to sexual violations, in contrast to published reports and anecdotal stories. Statement takers described the topic as generally tabu for them to enquire about, or for the deponent to disclose:

If the story gets very serious, then they cannot talk about some of the violations that happened to them. If it’s the kind of things about lost properties and belongings, they can talk about that. But if it’s about rape or something like that, it’s too hard to mention it. It’s tabu. (Interview with HM)

In the women’s submission to the TRC, the importance of silence was noted: ‘[F]or women, sometimes their silence is louder, stronger, and safer than anything they say out loud because of the risks involved in telling their stories’ (Fangalasuu et al. 2011: 13). As strong cultural taboos limit women’s ability to discuss rape or sexual experiences, doing so would contravene cultural practices and risk further violence, shame, or other repercussions. The women’s submission suggests that ‘truth-telling often separates families, communities, and individuals. This is why so often truth is strategically concealed’ (Fangalasuu et al. 2011: 13). The cultural impetus for choosing silence is thus heightened by the very tangible issue of physical safety and security (Vella 2014b: 99).

Attitudes towards discussing sex-related topics can differ across the country, and the ramifications vary in each location. For example, statement takers noted some communities were more open to discuss topics relating to one’s sexual past, whereas in others it was completely forbidden. In some places, doing so would cause shame for the woman involved and perhaps lead to demands of compensation to ‘cover the ears’ of her male relatives. In other places, the woman’s male relatives may demand compensation from the man in question, and perhaps also punish the woman. Some colleagues warned that the TRC would have to pay compensation for even raising the topic. Commissioner Kamilo Teke explained:

In the culture, there are many things inside. Especially for women. To ask people to tell their story out, it’s not straightforward for them to talk. For example, rape. Rape and other activities, especially for young girls, it affects their lives forever now. In culture, the kastom of people, if you talk about it, you must pay compensation to the community as well. So for those reasons, they are frightened, they are reserved. Maybe some tell their stories, others will hide it, we don’t know.

Considering these conditions, unless deponents raised the violation in their testimony, sexual violence received little attention. When it was spoken of, it was often done by relatives or carers of the victim (TRC Report 2012: 604). Women were much more likely to narrate stories of displacement, loss of properties, and damage to their gardens or kitchens, than they were to discuss sexual violence, as these were the injustices that are continuing to affect their lives today in a tangible way that they feel free to discuss. When the topic of sexual violence was raised, it was often alluded to through euphemism or indirect language, such as ‘he did something no good to me’, or ‘he took her outside and and then quickly moved on from.

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