More likely to be sexually abused in SA than not

No one likes to read about terrible stories of abuse – but one photographer took it upon herself to spend a decade uncovering harrowing stories of rape in order to educate victims and foreign audiences alike about these harrowing realities of living in poor communities across Africa


A NEW photography book entitled My Piece of Sky attempts to tell the painful story of sexual abuse, especially child rape, in Africa from all angles imaginable.

Photojournalist Mariella Furrer has spent more than ten years to document instances of widespread practises of child rape, culminating in her 700-page strong photo-book. It may be the most comprehensive documentation of abuse anywhere in Africa yet, as victims are often reluctant to share their stories of abuse with others, despite recurring media coverage and public awareness campaigns.

“The most important thing about this body of work really is to try to get people to speak out about their abuse — to have the courage to speak out about it, because there’s a lot of shame and guilt attached to it,” Furrer says about her work.

In her extensive grand opus, Furrer tries to remove false notions of guilt from the victims that she speaks to, hoping to alter the stigma that often comes hand-in-hand in many traditional societies with being a rape victim.

“Child sexual abuse is particularly prevalent in South Africa, but it is a global problem,” Furrer said, adding that it is a growing phenomenon that “transcends any social, economic, and racial boundaries. And it’s everywhere.”


The rape statistics in South Africa are heartbreaking indeed and speak for themselves: The Tears Foundation says that the child rape rate in SA is 45 per cent; the Medical Research Council puts that number even higher at 50 per cent. These estimates are largely based on cases that are reported to the police; the dark figure is likely to be considerably higher, making it more likely for a child in SA to be subjected to sexual abuse while growing up than not. The statistics can also be misinterpreted, as they don’t necessarily include instances of rape with murder.

“Most child sexual abuse is unreported,” Furrer said in a television interview, “as we don’t speak out the perpetrator will continue.”

She approaches the subject of sexual abuse with a unique sensitivity, owing to the fact that she was abused as a child herself while living in Kenya. Furrer has spent her entire life living in Africa despite hailing from Swiss and Lebanese roots. Through her work she tries to relate to victims of sexual abuse as much as trying to understand what motivates the perpetrators.

“Every day they wake up they are reminded [of the abuse] through either a scar on them or a ‘tattoo’ that dad has put on them — you know, like saying ‘Daddy loves you.’”

The accounts that Furrer shares from her victims are graphic and deplorable in content, but this might be what it takes to educate people about the issue. In addition to focusing on paedophilia and child trafficking, Furrer’s book also examines the rise of child-on-child rape cases based on the photographer’s long-standing quest to tell the stories of all sexual abuse victims.

In one instance, she recounts the fate of a nine-year-old boy with his picture sitting in a car on his way to meet with a social worker. Furrer says that he was “gang raped and beaten with metal pipes and sticks by his ‘friends’, two eight-year-olds, three eleven-year-olds and a thirteen-year-old.”


The boy never reported the crime, so his abusers walked off scot-free. Perhaps with the help of this photo-book, more and more young victims of sexual abuse will step up and speak up against rape.

By Sertan Sanderson, 2014