I’ve been gone awhile because I’ve been crazy busy at work and trying to not life go past me. But the other day I heard a story about one of the families we employ and it moved me so much I had to share my thoughts.

About two years ago this man’s daughter was raped – by their landlord no less. She went and got tested for HIV at the recommended times and she was found negative. This past weekend she had another test, as an organisation was doing HIV testing in their neighbourhood, her results came back positive. She’s 19 years old.

The father, visibly upset, told me that he’d told her off for all the men she was ‘moving around with’ (a random Zambian phrase that I’ve never totally understood), and that if she continued to do this she will definitely throw her life away because look at where she is now.

The man wasn’t at all stigmatising his daughter, or at least he didn’t think he was, but did blame her behaviour on her now positive status.

I asked him if his daughter ever had counselling after she was raped and he said a couple of times but then she stopped. I kind of had an aha moment and advised him to get his daughter back into counselling, even if it’s just for the girl to learn how to stay positive with her status.

My aha moment was really as a result of a conversation I’d had with this professor at the University of Western Cape when we talked about how to integrate message on violence against women in relation to HIV. Someone at the time wanted to do a storyline in a show around a woman who gets raped and is infected. While that does happen, it’s actually not the rape that puts a woman at risk of infection, it’s what happens next.

In the movies and TV shows, you usually see the woman who has been raped as the demure, quiet woman who is scared to be touched by a man and shuns sex altogether. Of course the other end of that pendulum is the woman who goes on to become a commercial sex worker (to use a pc term that no one other than in the development world uses) – and clearly sex workers are at risk of contracting HIV. But there is that group in the middle that people don’t really talk about. The ones who aren’t commercial sex workers and aren’t not having sex, but in fact are having a lot of sex. The ones who are for all intents and purposes, promiscuous.

I use the term promiscuous because by definition it means undiscriminating casual sex with many different partners, but I’m not a fan of the term because of its moral connotations. You can’t label a person who has been violated with a term that is moralistic in definition.

I don’t think unless you’ve been through it you can imagine what it’s like to be raped. And while each case is different, and all ultimately result in a woman being violated, I could guess that there are different degrees of rape – none being ‘better’ than the other. But being raped by an acquaintance could bring out a different trauma than being raped by a stranger, and that’s why even each rape survivor is different and while they can relate to some similarities not each survivor can necessarily understand what the other is going through. But I digress.

My point is for those women who are raped and then deal with the aftermath of indiscriminate sexual experiences, they are the ones who are at a high risk for HIV infection. I don’t necessarily think that it’s indiscriminate sex, it’s more that the survivor is looking to gain back the control that they think they lost, and probably afraid to say no. Isn’t it easier to have sex, even if you don’t really want it, than risk being raped again? Though when you think about it, you’re pretty much being raped over and over again, you just think that you are more in control because you said yes rather than no and have it forced on you.

The problem is that society, certainly in Africa (ok Zambia), tends to sweep sexual abuse, rape even, under the carpet, rather than providing the support that victims need. I think that it’s possible for a rape survivor to lead a healthy sexual/relationship life without counselling, but I think it’s probably easier to do this with some counselling and a good support network. Yet we tend to brush counselling off as something only crazy people do. We also have a fear of the confidentiality aspect – not surprising, you hear so many cases of counsellors, doctors even, discussing patients cases it’s scary! But then again rape survivors have to realise that it’s not their fault. If we could move past this shame/blame thing then maybe it would be easier to not go through the indiscriminate sexual practices.

Anyway, my point is that this poor 19 year old girl has probably ended up infected because of unresolved issues as a result of her rape. And this is what we need to remember when dealing with sexual violence and HIV/AIDS, we can’t forget about the after-effects of rape, which a woman can deal with for years after the assault. Specifically in Africa we need to address this because sexual violence is way too common, whether it’s used as a weapon of war in conflict areas (I shudder when I think of the statistics in Congo) or as an every day risk in areas where women aren’t valued and thought of as second class citizens. And while I have used the case of women, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are male victims of rape too. We need to use our voices to speak for and support survivors and ensure this doesn’t continue to happen to other people.

Peace.

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