Documenting Child Sexual Abuse in South Africa

The Photo Blog
May 13 2014 11:14 AM

Documenting Child Sexual Abuse in South Africa

Warning: Although the images below are not visually graphic, some of the victims’ stories may be upsetting to some readers.

March 2003
 / The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Johannesburg, Gauteng A young girl attempts to flee a doctor’s room before a medical forensic examination. A nine-year-old relative who admitted to playing “sexual games” with her was later discovered to have been sexually abused himself. Both children were sent to counseling.
The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Johannesburg, Gauteng, March 2003. A young girl attempts to flee a doctor’s room before a medical forensic examination. A 9-year-old relative who admitted to playing “sexual games” with her was later discovered to have been sexually abused himself. Both children were sent to counseling.

Mariella Furrer

Photographer Mariella Furrer sees My Piece of Sky, her 700-page book documenting child sexual abuse in South Africa, as both a record and a catalyst for her life’s work.

For more than a decade, Furrer documented—through photographs and interviews—the stories of the survivors and families of child sexual abuse, sometimes told through their artwork and poetry also included in the book. Furrer wanted to develop a fully realized project, so she added the stories she learned directly from a number of sex offenders, as well as from child services professionals, police, prosecutors, and the general population.

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“It kind of fell upon me,” Furrer said about the work. “I can’t explain it. If it had been any other project, I would have done it in four years, but with this kind of topic, I was working at 30 percent because 70 percent of the time you’re just dealing with all the emotional baggage and just trying to get up again to continue doing it. … It really pushed me to the edge. There’s no way to deal with these sorts of crimes against children and be normal and be the same. … It will change you forever.”

November 2002
 / Johannesburg, GautengProfessor Lorna Jacklin, a neuro-developmental pediatrician and director of the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, begins a forensic medical examination on a sexually abused two-and-a-half-year-old girl. Asked to lie down for the 
medical check up, the toddler lay back and spread her legs as she had been taught to do by the perpetrator.
Johannesburg, Gauteng, November 2002. Professor Lorna Jacklin, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and director of the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, begins a forensic medical examination on a sexually abused 2½-year-old girl. Asked to lie down for the medical checkup, the toddler lay back and spread her legs as she had been taught to do by the perpetrator.

Mariella Furrer

November 2002
, Johannesburg General Hospital, Gauteng A girl supports her friend, who was allegedly raped with another girl during a school outing.
Johannesburg General Hospital, Gauteng, November 2002. A girl supports her friend, who was allegedly raped with another girl during a school outing.

Mariella Furrer

December 2008 The mutilated legs of Susanna. Initiated into a satanic cult at the age of eight, twenty-four-year-old Susanna developed DID as a coping mechanism and has over 200 identities, many of which are self-mutilators. The initiations involved many forms of sexual abuse, including bestiality, gang rapes, and child pornography.
The mutilated legs of Susanna, December 2008. Initiated into a satanic cult at the age of 8, 24-year-old Susanna developed dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism and has more than 200 identities, many of which are self-mutilators. The initiations involved many forms of sexual abuse, including bestiality, gang rapes, and child pornography.

Mariella Furrer

She began the project in 2002 when she received an assignment to cover a story about infant rape in South Africa for Marie Claire. Furrer was so floored by the number of children receiving treatment for abuse that knew she wanted to work on something bigger than an article for a magazine. She began by traveling from her home in Kenya to the Johannesburg-based Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, a nonprofit organization that provides therapy and support for abused children.

When she explained she wanted to document the children, the clinic proposed they use actors to stage the photographs instead of actual victims. “I explained to them that I am documenting the real thing,” Furrer said. She promised not to photograph the children’s faces and met with caseworkers and families to begin building their trust and eventually relocated to South Africa to work on the project.

When she was 5, Furrer herself was molested and said it took until she was an adult to begin talking about what had happened to her. She spoke with many of the children she photographed telling them she, too, had been molested; she was sensitive to their situation and promised to stop anytime. “I was very aware of how it would feel as a child to have a camera pointed at you, even if your face isn’t shown. The fact that someone is paying this much attention to you because you’ve been raped—it’s kind of pointing a finger at you,” she said. To make things as casual as possible, Furrer said she would often use a simple point-and-shoot camera.

January 2006
, Thembisa, Gauteng A ten-year-old girl speaks to Tinka Labuschagne, a senior education specialist with the South African Ministry of Education. The previous day the girl disclosed to her teacher that her brother and two of his friends had been sexually abusing her since she was six. She alleged that she had been raped, sodomised and forced to perform oral sex. She had severe problems with her eyes, a sore throat, vaginal discomfort, and was suspected to be suffering from gonorrhea.
Thembisa, Gauteng,January 2006.
A 10-year-old girl speaks to Tinka Labuschagne, a senior education specialist with the South African Ministry of Education. The previous day the girl disclosed to her teacher that her brother and two of his friends had been sexually abusing her since she was 6. She alleged that she had been raped, sodomized, and forced to perform oral sex. She had severe problems with her eyes, a sore throat, vaginal discomfort, and was suspected to be suffering from gonorrhea.

Mariella Furrer

March 2004
/ Cape Town, Western CapeChris is driven to the Police Child Protection Unit so a police social worker can try to get a statement from him as he was too traumatized and scared to talk to the investigating officer. He never disclosed what happened, so the perpetrators never went to trial.
Cape Town, Western Cape, March 2004. Chris is driven to the Police Child Protection Unit so a police social worker can try to get a statement from him, as he was too traumatized and scared to talk to the investigating officer. He never disclosed what happened, so the perpetrators never went to trial.

Mariella Furrer

Volunteers from all over Pretoria are debriefed before beginning a search for 7yr old Sheldean. Pretoria, February 2007.
Pretoria, February 2007. Volunteers from all over Pretoria are debriefed before beginning a search for 7-year-old Sheldean Human, who was kidnapped and eventually found dead.

Mariella Furrer

About halfway through the project, Furrer went to Perpignan, France, for the photojournalism festival Visa pour l’Image, where she said the photographs from the project she showed brought a lot of those who saw it to tears. “It was the first time I realized it is powerful,” Furrer said. “As a package it tells a story, and it’s moving people either because of the images or they’ve been directly or indirectly affected by child abuse.  … That motivated me to continue.”

According to a 2009 report by Solidarity Helping Hand, South Africa has some of the worse rates of sexual abuse against children in the world, with a child being raped every three minutes. Furrer emphasizes that although she found the violence attached with the rapes in South Africa to be extreme, child sexual abuse is a global problem. She hopes to raise international awareness about crimes against children, including child pornography on the Internet, and said publishing My Piece of Sky is only the beginning. “I’m hoping that by talking about it, it will allow people to open up about their own abuse and offload it, because you carry this burden of guilt and shame … That is the killer,” she said.

Furrer will hold a conversation about My Piece of Sky with photographer Stephanie Sinclair followed by a book signing at the Aperture Gallery and Bookstore on Tuesday from 6­­–8 p.m. in New York City.

Johannesburg, December 2005 Insp. 'Stroppie' Grobelaar, a Search & Rescue officer with the Police Dog Unit in Soweto, and his dog, Fargu, search nearby rivers and dams for the body of 7yr old Kamogelo "Kamo" Sekome.
Johannesburg, December 2005. Inspector “Stroppie” Grobelaar, a search and rescue officer with the police dog unit in Soweto, and his dog, Fargu, search nearby rivers and dams for the body of 7-year-old Kamogelo “Kamo” Sekome.

Mariella Furrer

Members of the ANC Women's League hold out flyers that they were distributing at the funeral of 3yr old S'bongile Mokoena who was raped and murdered on November 8, 2003. Soweto, December 2003.
Soweto, December 2003. Members of the African National Congress Women's League hold out fliers that they were distributing at the funeral of 3-year-old S'bongile Mokoena, who was raped and murdered on Nov. 8, 2003.

Mariella Furrer

Pretoria, Gauteng, March 2007 Sheldean Human’s classmates at her memorial.
Pretoria, Gauteng, March 2007. Sheldean Human’s classmates at her memorial.

Mariella Furrer

Soweto, Gauteng, November 2003Friends and relative comfort Lebohang Mokoena, Sibongile’s aunt, at the Kliptown Community Hall. Lebohang was looking after Sibongile when she went missing.
Soweto, Gauteng, November 2003. Friends and relatives comfort Lebohang Mokoena, Sibongile’s aunt, at the Kliptown Community Hall. Lebohang was looking after Sibongile when she went missing.

Mariella Furrer

Pretoria, Gauteng, March 2007Protests outside the court where Andrew Jordaan, charged with Sheldean Human’s murder, is scheduled to appear.
Pretoria, Gauteng, March 2007. Protests outside the court where Andrew Jordaan, charged with Sheldean Human’s murder, was scheduled to appear. He was convicted of her murder as well as attempting to rape her and raping her friend.

Mariella Furrer

Johannesburg, Gauteng, April 2003A child’s drawing at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.
Johannesburg, Gauteng, April 2003. A child’s drawing at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.

Mariella Furrer

MY PIECE OF SKY

Mariella Furrer

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.