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What to do in the wake of a rape

Last year in South Africa, it was reported that the crime rate for sexual offences was 127 per 100 000 people. This means that roughly 67 300 sexual offence cases were opened with the police. And it is generally accepted that only one in nine (or fewer) survivors of sexual violence report it to the police, meaning that at least 605 700 sexual offences took place last year.

These are terrifying statistics. With numbers like these, there is an extremely good chance that you or someone you know will be a victim of sexual violence at some point in your life. But very few people know what to do in the wake of such a horrific and traumatic experience, when the actions that they take are crucial to the successful prosecution of the perpetrator.

We spoke to Michelle Solomon, the media liaison of the Silent Protest in Grahamstown, to find out what women should do at such a difficult time.

In the immediate aftermath of a rape, it's important to ensure that the victim is in a safe space with supportive friends or family, she says. The circle of supportive people should try to convince, but not coerce or force, the victim to go to hospital and undergo a medical exam as well as a rape exam.

How to preserve the evidence
While the victim will of course be severely traumatised and may not want to report the rape, it's possible that she may change her mind later, so the same steps and care should be taken to preserve the evidence. The victim must not:

  • Wash any part of her body including her hands because the blood and skin of her attacker might be under her fingernails.
  • Use the toilet.
  • Drink anything or brush her teeth.
  • Brush her hair again, pieces of evidence may have gathered there.
  • Change her clothes.
  • Clean or disturb anything in the area where the rape took place.

If the rape victim doesn't have any choice but to change her clothes, or has other evidence she believes may be relevant to her case, each item of clothing must be placed in a separate paper bag or envelope. Michelle explains that plastic degrades evidence, so placing clothes in a plastic bag could mean that the evidence becomes useless.

Where to go for a rape examination
It is better to go directly to a hospital than to the police, as that is where rape kits are held and rape examinations are performed. If possible, try to get to a Netcare hospital, as they have 37 Sexual Assault Centres around the country, where they offer free counselling to men, women and children immediately after rape and for a year after.

A family doctor can do the rape exam at the hospital, as the instructions in the kit are easy to follow by medical personnel. A friend can stay in the room with the victim, and if the victim is a minor, it is crucial that a parent or guardian is present.

Reporting rape to the police
Reporting a rape is a personal choice and the victim's decision must be respected. If she wants to report it, it is best to give a statement to the police as soon as she is able, but this can be postponed if she is too traumatised. The police should come to take a statement from her at the hospital. However, if there is a delay in reporting the rape, the victim will then have to go to a police station. If a rape victim does go to a police station before going to hospital, it should be one that has its own Thuthuzela Care Centre, which is a world-renowned model for best practice in assisting rape victims. She will then be transported from the police station to a hospital in an ambulance in the company of specialised, trained volunteers or medical personnel.

Contraceptive and antiretroviral care
Michelle explains that the 2007 Sexual Offences Act requires that rape survivors be given a 28-day course of antiretrovirals for the prevention of HIV infection. These must be provided at the state's expense when a survivor reports to a healthcare facility within 72 hours of the assault. This medication is less effective if it is administered after 48 hours and completely ineffective after 72 hours.

Rape victims are also entitled to emergency contraceptives usually in the form of the morning-after pill. By law, no hospital may deny a victim access to these services. However, rape survivors are often denied information or access to this drug by the police, so it is very important to know your rights.

Long-term support
After going through the overwhelmingly traumatic experience of a rape, the victim should find a way to get ongoing psychological support. Michelle recommends that they contact the Stop Gender Violence Helpline, which is a division of Lifeline with counsellors trained to help survivors of gender-based violence. Their number is 0800 150 150.

If you are the friend of a rape victim, it is your role to be compassionate and supportive. Michelle explains that blaming, shaming or interrogating a rape survivor are not only deeply unethical but also incredibly cruel. The most important thing is that a survivor feels supported and safe with the people that she loves and relies on.

Final word
Nothing can undo the physical or psychological trauma of rape, but with the correct care and support for the victim, the prosecutor can be brought to justice and the victim can find some kind of closure.

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