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“It is alarming that a total of 5 935 rape incidents took place at the residence of the perpetrator/victim, including residence known by victims/ perpetrator, these are family, friends and neighbours”, Minister Bheki Cele reported in his 2022/2023 third quarter crimes statistics.

My mum was repeatedly raped during the Easter weekend of 1978, and through the horror that she had to endure, I was conceived.

A friend of my mum’s invited her to a house party. When she discovered that he had lied, it was too late. He locked her in a room and repeatedly raped her throughout that weekend.

My mum was scared to lay charges or tell anyone what had happened to her. She thought nobody would believe her.

She endured the reputation her community placed on her for having a child out of wedlock. At the age of 12, I found out that I was a product of rape, after watching a movie where the main character was raped.

From that day onwards I became conscious of the cloud of trauma that surrounded her until her death. She confided in me that she was claustrophobic and frightened to walk in the dark even when I was with her. I saw the psychological burden she carried.

While living in shelters for the homeless, I heard of numerous cases of rape. Dinah was gang raped while living on the streets. She carried the physical and psychosocial wounds of her traumatic experience. We shared a bunk bed in the night shelter, where she would constantly go to the bathroom during the night because of the trauma inflicted on her bladder.

Deborah, who was sleeping rough on the streets, was raped while her partner was with her. She was treated as if she had cheated on him. Cold showers were traumatic for Tamara as they reminded her of being raped while sleeping rough on the streets. (The ladies’ names have been changed to protect their identity)

Women who are sleeping rough on the streets, do not have any guarantees that when they go to sleep at night that they won’t be raped or killed, even when they are next to their partner.

The list of homeless women who experience these horrific events is endless.

Women sleeping rough on the streets are scared to report rape because their lives are in danger. Trauma from rape, gender-based violence, and family breakdown are factors leading to rising levels of homelessness.

Additionally, poor coping mechanisms to process this trauma, such as substance abuse or social withdrawal, exacerbate homelessness further. This context helps us to see why punitive responses are ill-advised and unjust and why developmental solutions are the only long-term way forward.

U-turn Homeless Ministries knows that the journey out of homelessness is not easy. Through its phased programme, it equips people with skills to overcome their circumstances. During Phase 1, at its homeless support centres, the basic needs of those sleeping rough on the streets are met and access is provided to a therapeutic team.

When it comes to overcoming homelessness long-term, it is not just a case of providing a job or housing (although they are important) but helping clients work through their traumas and unlearn destructive coping mechanisms and behaviours. A supportive ecosystem feeding a new culture of recovery is what helps clients put all the puzzle pieces together for an independent, productive and fulfilling life.

This is one of the reasons that U-turn Homeless Ministries has opened a transitional home for women who are on their Phase 3 Work-readiness programme. The Champions are able to experience a safe, dignified home environment.

With the right supportive care, aligned to phased skills development, it is possible to overcome homelessness and thrive.

U-turn graduates, such as myself, bear testament to that and it is our voices of hope that declare the pathway of healing for individuals and communities. – Cathy Achilles, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times on 8 May 2023

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