Gender News OurHealth Sexual Violence

Rape within families under-reported

Written by Bontle Motsoeneng

Rape remains under-reported nationally but there may be no rapes more hidden than those committed within families.

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Thato* never reported the rape to the police because her grandmother feared it would tear the family apart (File photo)

For 14-year-old Free State teen Thato*, being raped by her uncle was a traumatic experience, only made easier because she got the full support of her grandmother, who takes care of Thato and her brothers.

“One day after school, I came home and my grandmother was not feeling well,” said the self-described “shy” teen who spends most of her time cooking and cleaning for her frail grandmother.

“I did my chores and cooked,” she told OurHealth. “That’s when my uncle arrived.”

“He saw my gran for a few minutes and then he called me quietly to another bedroom,” she explained. “ When I got there he told me to undress and if I dare scream he would kick my brothers and I out of the house he was paying for.”

“I refused but then he forced himself on me,” she said. “He started raping me and I started screaming. My gran did not hear…so he kept on raping me.”

“Then he just got up and left,” she said. “I was so scared and cried and cried until my brothers arrived, but I couldn’t tell them what happened because I felt so ashamed.”

Thato eventually told her grandmother, who confronted Thato’s uncle. He denied the allegations. Although Thato received medical care after the assault, no charges were ever filed against her uncle.

“We didn’t go to the police station because I didn’t want to tear the family apart,” said the teen.

Survivors, families face tough choices

According to Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust’s Counselling Coordinator Shiralee McDonald, rapes committed by family members or close family friends are among the most under-reported rapes.

“There is a huge degree of silencing around family rape or incestuous rape,” said McDonald, who added that shame plays a key role in keeping survivors silent. “People hide it within families and pretend it is not happening, but there is an obligation to report a child who is at risk.”

[quote float= right]If the rapist is a breadwinner, often the child is sacrificed so that the family won’t go hungry and so that they can still have a roof over their heads.”

McDonald said many of the survivors that come to the Rape Crisis centre report an uncle, grandfather, stepfather or mother’s boyfriend was behind the attach. She added that women’s lack of economic empowerment and patriarchal gender norms lead some men to think that they have power over females in the home.

“We come from a history of patriarchy and violence and now those nested eggs are hatching,” she explained. “If the rapist is a breadwinner, often the child is sacrificed so that the family won’t go hungry and so that they can still have a roof over their heads.”

Children like Thato often harbour not only feeling of shame, but also blame as if they did something to cause the attack. While survivors will deal with the aftermath of an attack differently, what is clear is that families – not only survivors – also need to heal.

“There is great shame, and if there is intervention it has to be at a family level as everyone has to heal,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all (solution) to deal with this issue of family rape.”

If you suspect a child could be at risk, you can report the matter to the South African Police Services or Child Welfare South Africa. Reporting can be done anonymously.

For more help, families and survivors can also contact Rape Crisis’ 24-hour hotline on 021 447 9762. 

*Name changed to protect the identity of the child

An edited version of this story was also published on

About the author

Bontle Motsoeneng

Bontle Motsoeneng is an OurHealth Citizen Journalist reporting from the Free State’s Thabo Mofutsanyane Health District.