Putting back the pieces…

Melanie Potgieter and Sam Mhlazana at the shop.

I settle into the chair opposite Reinette Evans in her lovely office, and my eyes take in the words on the walls: love, faithful, peace, self-control.

There’s a bustle of activity on the premises as women arrive at the shop, in a large wendy house adjacent to the main building.

It’s sale day, and the bargains to be had are plentiful, and amidst the chatter – as visitors go through the clothes and other items on sale, the radio is piping through gospel music, and everyone hums or sings along with the well-known verses.

It doesn’t strike me as at all incongruous to encounter this gentle and harmonious merriment, given that this is Rape Crisis Helderberg – a place where shattered lives come for healing and help, for restoration of dignity and personal empowerment, and to find a voice that may have been muted by violating experiences, often by the hands of those closest to them.

Reinette shares the basis of the work they do, the challenges they face, and the vision they strive to achieve.

“Rape does not affect only certain portions of our community. It happens to rich and poor, young and old, pretty and ugly, thin and fat.

“Conservative figures are that one in three women in South Africa will be sexually abused or raped, and one in six men will be sexually abused or raped,” she says.

Rape Crisis Helderberg is the only rape crisis centre within the towns they serve: Faure, Firgrove, Gordon’s Bay, Lwandle, Macassar, Nomzamo, Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, Strand and Somerset West.

The centre is next to Helderberg Hospital, which provided the land for them in 1993, when Felicity Bouwer started Rape Crisis Helderberg, after it became apparent that there was a desperate need in the community for a service like this.

Reinette took over the “reins” from her in 1995, and Rape Crisis continues under her dedicated leadership.

The present crisis centre, which is unique in the Western Cape, was conceived by the police, Rape Crisis, the community and the Hottentots Holland Hospital, and was born on August 14, 1997.

Reinette runs me through the process: “The first intervention is when the woman makes a case, the police and doctors come, a medical examination is done, medication is given (crucially, within the first 72 hours) to avoid pregnancy and HIV/Aids infection, and then she is given a warm bath, and a care package with toiletries.

“Victims are given counseling, and can come back for more sessions for as long as they need,” she says.

They also provide counseling for adults who have experienced childhood rape, as they are helped to work through all the layers of trauma. There is 24-hour rape crisis intervention, and help is given with interdicts, accompanying people to court.

“We work with people over the age of 18, as PATCH NGO does work with children under 18,” she explains.

The centre reaches out to the greater community, giving talks at corporate gatherings, women’s and men’s groups, Rotary and other service organisations etc, to raise awareness and funds.

“In the beginning, we used to go to the casualty ward at the hospital to meet with the victims, and find a little spot to sit and talk with them, before our centre grew into its current location,” she says.

I asked about the culture of rape, and how it perhaps manifested at certain times of year, and where triggers may lie.

“Lately, its been quieter, I don’t know if it’s because women report it and then go home, and decide against coming here.

“We’re busier in the summer months, when the days are longer, and people go outdoors more at night, where drinking is a factor.”

Interestingly, she says that there are often increases during the times of year when the campaigns raising awareness against violence towards women occur, “maybe because the men get irritated… it’s a power thing, we don’t know what goes on in their minds”.

There are a number of volunteers who help out, and do call-outs, in addition to the volunteers in the shop, and two shop assistants.

“Here we work from the heart, because you’ve got to. People are also bringing their hearts to you, asking ‘Why is this happening to me again, it happend when I was four years old?’ This is a calling, this work,” she emphasises.

“Rape crosses all income groups, from the most underprivileged person, to the wealthiest. Sometimes there is so much at stake, and the women will choose to keep quiet about it.

“Men come forward as well, sometimes after hijackings, where they are raped as well as robbed, she says.

“Or people are going to pubs, where their drinks are spiked – it happens quite a lot. We want to believe the best of humanity, but

“Depending upon where you go, you may be more vulnerable. Maybe you go on a date, meet someone who comes home for coffee, and something happens, or a job interview, where there is sexual harrassment or pressure.”

Reinette says that the police work hard to pursue the perpetrators, and jail sentences can be between 10 and 15 years for rape and violent assault.

“Because our centre works so well, people come immediately, the police come, and it works efficiently.

“Sometimes, when children are involved, and rape takes place within the marriage, the prosecutor will call the couple in and meet with them, and decide how to proceed,” she says.

The centre covers taxi fare and all other costs, and helps victims with clothing and household items, depending on the need, and the gift shop income provides towards these costs.

Their website has a puzzle shaped like a heart, where one can “buy” a puzzle piece, colour it in, and donate any amount.

Before she rushed out to do an interview on RSG radio, she showed me the rooms, all beautifully furnished and decorated: warm, reassuring, comforting, uplifting.

I popped into the shop afterwards, and left with the perfect jacket for my lanky son, boots for a friend, two blouses, and a renewed spring in my step.