Help for survivors of sexual offences

Nurse Babalwa Tola, Nontsikelelo Mathole (Rape Crisis counsellor), Dr Rhene de Villiers and Sister Ntuntu Ntwana Goniwe.

The clinical forensic unit at Victoria Hospital in Wynberg delivers a specialist service to survivors of sexual offences.

It’s a service similar to that provided by Thuthuzela Care Centres – one-stop emergency facilities for rape survivors, proving medicolegal care and counselling, among other services.

Dr Rhene de Villiers, head of the unit, and a team of nurses and Rape Crisis counsellors, work closely with police detectives.

Dr De Villiers says a counsellor explains to the patient the process that’s about to follow. “The nurses usually do a few tests before the examination and assist the doctor during the examination. The nurse plays a very important role in supporting the patient throughout the examination.”

The rape victim is offered sanitary products, a bath or shower, some refreshment and a change of underwear.

During the medical examination, a forensic expert collects samples of semen, blood and saliva from the rape victim’s clothes and body, ensuring the evidence is not compromised.

“The examiner seals the evidence bag immediately, and this evidence is handed over to the investigating officer. The officer conveys the evidence to the police’s forensic science laboratory, where it is stored securely and analysed.”

The clinical forensic examiners also document the process and the findings rigorously so they can present reliable evidence in court, says Dr De Villiers.

After the examination, the rape victim is given medication to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Two victim-assistance officers are always on standby for referral for after-care and support.

“There is always a nurse and a counsellor on site, 24/7, and a doctor on call,” says Dr De Villiers.

Not many people are aware that the service can be accessed directly without first reporting to the police. Patients are able to receive the counselling service, undergo the examination and decide at their own discretion when or if they want to report the assault. Any victim of trauma or assault is welcome to walk into the facility for assistance.

Although patient numbers at the unit vary greatly, the team sees between 50 and 80 victims of sexual offences each month. More than half of them are children and between 15% and 20% are males, says Dr De Villiers.

Before the unit was set up in its present format 10 years ago, district surgeons examined victims of sexual offences.

The unit falls under the Department of Health, but its counsellors are affiliated directly to Rape Crisis.

“Any doctor could do the forensic examination and give medication, but because of the way our unit is set up, the work we do encompasses so much more than just an examination,” says Dr De Villiers. “Our location apart from the main hospital provides privacy and a comforting welcoming feel to our patients. Having a dedicated, specially trained team to provide the services also means that our patients are looked after in the best possible way after a terrible, traumatic incident.”

Dr De Villiers says the work can be harrowing and the team debrief daily, encouraging one another. They understand that while the job is tough, it’s vitally important.

“Our daily lives are dotted with very difficult cases … Victims of sexual offences usually present to us in acute crisis and trauma. They need our care, comfort and support. They need the assurance that they will get the appropriate medical treatment and that they will be referred for victim support, counselling and aftercare once they leave the forensic unit after the initial examination.”

“The work we do can be emotionally challenging, as we work with patients (adults, children, families of victims) who are in crisis and in need of emotional and physical care and support.

“Being confronted with the truth and scale of gender-based violence and the impact it has on people can be emotionally draining. Although there’s a continuous drive to end gender-based violence and to stop the scourge, these crimes are being perpetrated and our service is vital.”

A woman who did not want to be named was treated at the centre earlier this year after she was raped.

“I was raped in February. After reporting my case at the Wynberg police station, I was taken to the clinic by the investigating officer. I was still in shock, and in a really bad head space, but the nurses and Dr De Villiers really made the experience ten times better than what it could have been. They offered me a sandwich and glass of water, they offered me a shower, toothpaste, panties, soap and even roll-on. There was also a really cute card that reminded me that I was brave.They were so kind and even checked up on me afterwards. I really didn’t expect it. I had heard so many bad things about reporting cases, but my experience was very different.”

The unit referred the woman to a counsellor at Rape Crisis who has been seeing her weekly and supporting her as her court case progresses.

The clinical forensic unit can be contacted at 021 799 1235.

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