The family of Mulalo Mukwevho*, who is 20 years old and mentally ill, were stunned when she started showing signs of pregnancy in January last year. More so when they discovered that a neighbour who knew the family well had been raping her.
Mukwevho is from Phiphidi, a village in the Vhembe district of Limpopo. She was born mentally ill and with an eye condition that limits her sight.
Her neighbour allegedly sent her to buy bread and then raped her in the kitchen on her return. But startlingly, Mukwevho revealed that he had been raping her for some time.
“She says he would always ask her to go and buy bread for him and, every time she came back, he would force himself on her. I then asked her why she did not tell us, as her family, since we would have sought help quicker, and her answer was that she was afraid,” said Mukwevho’s relative.
A research study titled Stop Violence Against People With Disabilities: An International Resource from open-access publisher Pretoria University Law Press says it is not easy for such victims to fight back or speak out.
According to the study, children and adults with little or no functional speech are at increased risk of being sexually violated because perpetrators know that a silent victim is the “best” victim.
“Many people do not fight back because they are scared. They are worried about being hurt again or think they do not have the right to fight back. But this, of course, is wrong,” writes Juan Bornman, a University of Pretoria professor and one of the editors of the report.
All three members of Mukwevho’s family – Mulalo, her mother and her brother – suffer from mental illness as well as eyesight problems. Nobody in the family is employed and they depend on a monthly disability grant from the government.
Mukwevho’s relative said they opened a case of rape against the neighbour after returning from the clinic. She said the police came looking for the suspect, but he had fled. “But when he came back, he did not get arrested. When I enquired with the police, they keep on saying they are still investigating the case,” said the relative.
“Through my sister, I have witnessed what sexual abuse does to mentally ill people. At first she [Mukwevho] was a free-spirited person, but not anymore. Lately, when you are with her, you can see that she is agitated and that she has also given up on life by taking care of herself less,” the relative said.
Another family that lives in Ha-Mashau village outside Elim in Limpopo is dealing with the sexual assault of their 21-year-old mentally ill daughter, Muofhe Mudau*. Mudau’s brother became suspicious when he got home from church and his sister wasn’t home. His mother said she was next door.
Mudau was already on her way home when he went to find her. She revealed that the man living next door had just raped her.
“Since it was still summer, she was raped at a mielie field and at that time, they had already grown so high. There was a blanket on the ground, which indicated that’s where my sister lay during the act,” said Mudau’s brother.
He was shocked to discover that his mother had accepted a payment of R10 from their neighbour to allow him to have sex with her daughter.
“Moreover, it came to light that it was not the first time the neighbour had been raping her. I got so angry and called his [the perpetrator’s] aunt and notified her about what had just happened. She then suggested that Mudau open a case of rape against him,” he said.
The perpetrator was arrested and later got out on bail. But the case never went any further. The investigating officer allegedly told the family he would be arrested if he commits such a crime again.
“Reviewing the whole thing made me hurt as a brother, especially when I realised that I grew up with the guy and he knows my family so well. He took advantage of my sister, knowing very well of her state,” said the 23-year-old university student.
Like Mukwevho, Mudau’s mother suffers from mental illness too. And Mudau’s four-year-old child was born with a condition that affected her bones, resulting in her being unable to walk. The family lives in a two-roomed house and depends on government disability grants for survival.
“Life is hard. It is not easy to cope around such [mentally ill and physically affected] family members. At least with my food allowances from my bursary, I am able to meet them halfway in terms of expenses,” said Mudau’s brother.
Not only a crime against women
The rape of mentally ill people doesn’t only affect women, as the mother of 20-year-old Mulisa Muavha* found out.
“My uncle is the one who found out about the rape … He told me that a well-known man in the village asked Mulisa to help him with stocktaking at his house in December 2017 … He grabbed him [Muavha] by his neck and put his hand on his mouth for him not to scream. He then pulled down his trousers, underwear and then pushed him down on the floor,” said Muavha’s mother.
The man allegedly sodomised the youth.
“I was devastated when I found out. I also started hearing rumours that it was not for the first time the man was raping my son,” she said.
The police arrested the perpetrator, but later released him. “I don’t know why he was released. I also do not know if it is the end of the case. I see the perpetrator just roaming around the streets,” said Muavha’s mother.
According to Bornman, violence against men with disabilities is a serious problem which, internationally, has not been studied as extensively as violence against similarly affected women.
Research on disability suggests that affected men and women share many similarities regarding the type of abuse and its impact, although gender role expectations discourage men from acknowledging the abuse.
“This is mainly due to a stereotypical view which exists that men cannot be abused. No South African statistics could be found, but nothing suggests that the scope of abuse of men with disabilities is less in this country,” said Bornman.
Legal expert Maanea Maluma said it is difficult to prosecute cases involving mentally challenged people because the courts require evidence – DNA to be precise – which in situations like these is unlikely to be present.
“Availability of evidence is the most crucial part when such cases are being tried. These days, most lawyers rely on a technicality in terms of how evidence is collected and, usually, many loopholes emerge during court proceedings,” said Maluma.
Maluma said the ability to withstand the rigours of cross-examination depends on the mental capacity of each individual. “But usually, people of such a nature lack the capacity to give consent, unless tested otherwise.”
Limpopo Department of Social Development spokesperson Kanakana Mantshimuli said there were instances in which abusers lured mentally ill people using money. “Some are lured by people who claim to be needing help at the ploughing fields and when they get there, they rape them,” he said.
Relatives as perpetrators
“We also encourage that families be on the lookout for close relatives, because some mentally ill persons suffer rape experiences at the hands of loved ones,” said Mantshimuli.
Last month in Tzaneen, members of the public alerted the police to a rape taking place in some bushes. The police caught a 28-year-old man in the act of raping a 28-year-old woman and arrested him. From the police’s preliminary investigations, it emerged that the woman’s grandmother had orchestrated the rape to get her pregnant. The grandmother was also arrested.
In Phalaborwa, a 27-year-old woman was raped on her way home from church. A middle-aged man allegedly asked her to accompany him to a house and then raped her. The police are still looking for the suspect.
The department could not confirm how many rape cases involving mentally ill people it deals with each year. “In a situation where a mentally ill person is taken advantage of by a relative, the family does not report such a case, especially if the relative is the breadwinner, for fear of sending away their only source of income,” said Mantshimuli.
Limpopo police spokesperson Colonel Moatshe Ngoepe said cases involving mentally challenged people are given the same attention as other cases.
* Names have been changed.