Men are also victims of rape, not only women, is the message that a rape counsellor wants people to understand.
“Because of the stigma that men cannot be the victims of rape because they ought to be ‘macho’ and ‘untouchable’ so many men are afraid to report the crime and suffer in silence,” said Abeedah Sulaiman, who has been a trauma counsellor at Rape Crisis in Athlone for six years. “Men too are human beings who can fall prey to any crime that women can,” she said.
Before joining Rape Crisis, Ms Sulaiman was a sports coach in Paarl. She said coaching made her realise that for a child to excel in sport or anything else in life, they needed to be mentally, emotionally, and physically stable – something that often was not the case.
When Ms Sulaiman moved to Cape Town she saw a Rape Crisis advertisement looking for trauma counsellors.
“I thought here’s my chance to help people – I’ve always wanted to help children. I went through extensive training and six years later I am still doing what I love.”
However, being a counsellor can be emotionally and mentally draining. Ms Sulaiman said a counsellor has to be strong, caring, and level-headed, and while that may be challenging, the career demands it.
Ms Sulaiman said so far she has counselled five men and 30 women and their families who are often referred by other organisations or are walk-in clients.
She said one of the many challenges in the field is that you constantly have to remind yourself not to judge what you are being told, whether counselling a victim or a perpetrator.
The process when handling a walk-in client is to firstly hear them out, offer them support, assign them to a counsellor or if there is one available at that moment, start a counselling session. Then, look at their needs and background and encourage them to report the matter to the police. Many clients, however, refuse to because they fear secondary trauma from police, the court, and the possibility of facing their rapist.
“Our counsellors are out in the field so we will book the client a session but if they urgently need someone to speak to we will counsel them there. Sometimes they really just need someone to listen. Sometimes they have reported it and need support when going to court, they all have different needs,” Ms Sulaiman said.
Rape Crisis offers a 12-session counselling programme, and if after that the client needs more therapy they can continue or might be referred to another organisation if they need specific therapy.
Ms Sulaiman said the one moment which stood out for her was when she counselled a 14-year-old girl who was raped.
“She was so traumatised, she couldn’t speak. I asked her if she wanted to write it down rather than tell me because sometimes that helps but she was so afraid. I needed to build up trust with her and eventually, after a few sessions, she was able to trust me. The case really moved me because I have children of my own but I had to keep my emotions intact. She kept breaking down in front of the prosecutor, who she said made her feel like she did something wrong,” she said.
Ms Sulaiman said her motivation to keep working in the field is the smile on her clients’ faces once they have been through a few counselling sessions.
“My advice to all those who are afraid to report it or seek help, is to get help as soon as you can because you need justice and it will haunt you if you don’t. For your own mental and emotional health, seek help. Speaking about it really helps. There are support groups here as well,” she said.
Asked what gives her fulfilment, she said: “If you care, make them feel safe, and comfortable, and you have empowered them in some way, then you know that you have succeeded.”