- Joanita Smith was gang-raped when she was 16 by boys she went to school with.
- The mother of two daughters says she lives with the trauma every day.
- Now she has decided to speak out and help other rape victims.
A Boksburg woman is aiming to break the stigma surrounding sexual abuse by advocating for mental health after she was gang-raped by a group of teenagers when she was 16.
Now, 30 years later, counselor Joanita Smith, 46, told News24 she has come to terms with the 1992 gang-rape, but her recovery is still a long way off.
“I remember very clearly attending a friend’s birthday party in Bloemfontein. Towards the end of the party, I went to change into a bathing suit when a group of four teenagers came in and pressed on me.
“I remember the door opening as soon as I took my bikini top off, I remember feeling embarrassed thinking these boys had entered the room by mistake. I felt sick to my stomach,” said an emotional Smith.
The realization of what was about to happen became apparent when one of the boys covered her mouth with his hand and told her to “shut up.”
“I can still smell his Brut deodorant even today,” Smith said.
Her perpetrators were known to her because they attended the same school and church as her.
The terrifying ordeal lasted minutes, but felt like hours. I tried to morally withdraw from the situation, because I was physically overpowered. The boys took turns raping me without my consent and, as if nothing had happened, left when the “fun” was over.
According to Smith, the reason she never pursued a case was that at the time, the majority of the population still believed that the woman was guilty of sexual assault.
“It was also a topic that was not usually discussed publicly. I didn’t file a single sexual assault case against them based solely on the shame I felt, the fear of being crucified by society,” Smith said.
She said that back then law enforcement agencies also treated victims differently and did not take them seriously.
Smith recalls how she got dressed, washed her face and pretended nothing had happened. She helped her friend clean up the bottles and balloons from the party and then finally went home.
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Afraid to seek help for fear of being disbelieved and facing legal action, Smith chose not to tell her parents or anyone else about the sexual abuse.
“I was unable and unwilling to heal my psychological wounds, I buried my trauma and suffered the devastating consequences when my pain resurfaced later in life,” she said.
Struggling with mental health
She says the remnants of that fateful evening affected her well-being and trust in people and had a profound effect on her mental state.
“My path to mental health began at the age of 18. I struggled with depression, but it wasn’t talked about in those years. Can you imagine? An 18-year-old struggles with mental health when you’re supposed to be in the prime of their youth.
“What these guys did to me was cruelty in the highest form, they stole my dignity and my will to live. At the age of 24, I attempted suicide by overdosing on depression medication. Fortunately, I was found in time and lived to share my story with the world.”
Now a mother of two daughters, Smith said it took her years to realize that anything she does, says or feels is a result of her extreme trauma.
It took me years to forgive myself, like I deserved what happened to me because of what I was wearing. After you’ve been through such a traumatic experience, you blame yourself, and as the years went by and I started to find myself again, I realized that what happened to me was not my fault.
Smith said she is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“Through therapy and medication, I got my life back and discovered how uneducated people are about mental health. I promised myself to be a defender of all people who suffer and all victims, breaking this stigma,” she said.
In May 2005, she opened her own early childhood development center where children from the age of six weeks were under her care, but due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was forced to close it in August 2020.
“I took a short course in counseling to offer free mental health help to victims of online sexual assault. I believe my trauma planted the seed for my desire to help others. It is the source of the compassion and empathy I feel for the struggles of others and is the reason , which is why I stand up for those who have been abused, and why after so many years I can finally tell others my story,” she said.
Realizing the need for therapists in the country, Smith is now on a mission to continue her education and become an advanced therapist to provide therapy to victims of gender-based violence and those suffering from mental health and other disorders as well as substance abuse. abuse.
“My recovery is ongoing. Although I have recovered physically, the mental scars will remain with me forever. The biggest part of my recovery process has been accepting the fact that it will take time and there is no quick fix . In order to progress in the recovery process, I had to forgive myself, acknowledging the fact that it was not my fault.”
She said the battle is far from over, but accepting what happened to her and the effect it had on her life was a step in the right direction.
When asked why she finally decided to speak out, Smith said it was important to destigmatize mental health disorders and all forms of abuse.
“I carried around guilt and shame and baggage because I didn’t want to talk about it. I’m telling my story of how I overcame what I went through so that it can be part of someone’s survival guide,” she said.