So in places like the Victoria Hospital Forensic Unit, helping survivors of rape goes beyond clinical and psychosocial care – it’s also a race against time to ensure HIV-negative survivors are treated with HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can reduce the risk of infection by 80 percent. The clinical care they receive also includes treatment of any injuries, prophylactic treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and referral for ongoing counselling to prevent the mental health problems associated with unresolved psychological trauma.
Should they choose to, survivors may also be supported and prepared for the various processes of the criminal justice system: filing a case with the police, linkages to legal aid if required and seeking prosecution in court. In the long term, increasing access to justice, challenging the culture of silence and breaking the cycle of impunity are critical.
The Forensic Unit is part of a system of ‘Thuthuzela’ Care Centers, a name that means ‘comfort’ in Xhosa. It’s an example of a remarkably strong collaboration between Department of Health medical staff, specialist detectives from South Africa’s National Police Service, prosecutors from the National Prosecuting Authority, and Rape Crisis first response counsellors.
When counsellor Nono Magano receives a survivor at the center, the job of comforting is her first concern. “Most of the time I’m thinking ‘I wish I could take the pain for you,’” she says. “I wish I can put an arm around your shoulder, just until you are able to fly solo again.” Counsellors also prepare the survivor for the forensic medical examination carried out by a doctor or nurse, to gather any semen, hair or other evidence from a person’s body or clothing. A ‘rape kit’ to store and document material evidence will be critical as part of the prosecution for rape.