Stories of child sex abuse in South Africa

Inspired by her own experience of sexual abuse, one photojournalist began documenting the victims and the perpetrators.

A child's drawing at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children in Johannesburg, April 2003 [Mariella Furrer]
A child's drawing at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children in Johannesburg, April 2003 [Mariella Furrer]
A young girl attempts to flee from the examining 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 abused himself. Both children were sent for counselling. The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Johannesburg, March 2003 [Mariella Furrer]

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

When I was about five years old, I was sexually abused by a stranger. I don’t think at that age I really understood what it was that had happened to me. But, somehow, I knew it was wrong and I felt to blame for letting the man touch me.

Shortly after the incident, I told my parents about it. I cannot begin to imagine the weight my disclosure must have had on them – the grief and the rage; furious at themselves for failing to protect me, enraged at the man for doing this to me, and infuriated at the world for allowing this to happen to their young daughter.

The molestation could not have lasted more than a couple of minutes, but the incident affected my life in ways that are difficult to articulate.

I don’t think as a five-year-old you really understand that you have lost something when you are abused, but you have – something does change.

You lose your childhood really, your innocence is snatched away, and what little is left of that once pure child is now transformed into a sexual being, a child with a knowledge of things way before her time.

From that moment on things were very different for me. I began covering myself up. Well into my teens I wore a t-shirt whenever I swam. I hated it when men stared at me; it made me uncomfortable. I went through a bulimic phase and hated my body and the attention it brought.

It took me a very long time after that to trust a man – or anyone – again.

My Piece of Sky is the result of a journey into the world of child sexual abuse.

It focuses on the crisis in South Africa, a country dealing with an epidemic of child sexual abuse, but it is not exclusively for South Africans. 

Through photographs, journals, artwork and testimonies from the abused and abusers, it offers a glimpse into a world of utter depravity, of absolute horror, but of incredible resilience, too, as young survivors struggle to rebuild their lives.

My exploration began in November 2002, when I received an assignment from a US-based women’s magazine to take photographs for an article on infant rape in South Africa.

I went to work with the South African Police Child Protection Unit in Port Shepstone, a town in the southeast of the country. I was only with them for a few days, but I was shocked by the numbers of children involved, and decided to continue working on the issue. The more I researched, the bigger the project became.

Most of my access came through the Johannesburg-based Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and the South African Police Services. Other contacts were made through individuals working in the field of child protection and healing.

Young survivors are surrounded by child rights activists and child protection officers whose absolute priority is the wellbeing of the children. It took me a very long time to gain their trust, but once I had it, I was considered one of them.

Today, I believe that I am as much an activist for the rights and protection of these children as anyone else, and many police officers and child protection advocates remain my dear friends, as do many of the young survivors and their families.

All my photos and interviews with children were made with consent from the child’s guardian or caretaker. Once I had this, I would always explain to the child (if they were old enough to understand) that I was working on a project about the bad things that people do to children, that it also happened to me, and that I really hoped that one day when people saw these photos and read these interviews they would want help to stop this happening to other children.

I also guaranteed that they would never be identifiable in photos or interviews.

When a child is molested or raped, they lose control over what is happening to them and their bodies, so while working with victims I was very sensitive about giving control back to them.

I would begin by sitting on the floor in a corner or somewhere out of the way. Once in my spot, I would move very little. I would take very few photos, watching to see how the children responded to the camera. I would interact with them often and become part of the team that worked to comfort them and make them feel safe. Throughout the process I would tell them that if at any time they felt uncomfortable with me or my camera, I would stop.

A few years into the project I decided I needed more than photography to tell this story. I was curious to know more about child sexual abuse; its impact on the survivors, their families, the police, the lawyers, and to try to understand what motivated the perpetrators. So I began doing in-depth interviews.

I used no particular set of questions during interviews. Instead, I formulated questions based on who I was working with, questions that would give me a better psychological and emotional understanding of their lives. I would always begin my interview by asking them to relay their story to me and as they talked I would jot down any questions that came to mind.

Once they finished their story, I would ask more in-depth, personal questions related to the psychology behind the trauma. What were they thinking when they were going through the attack? How did it impact them throughout their life – emotionally and sexually?

When I interviewed the perpetrators, it was with the understanding that My Piece of Sky would take some time to complete, and that they would not be identified, so as not to influence any pending court cases.

My interviews with them were really motivated by me wanting to understand their childhoods, when they were first attracted to children, whether they were abused or not, how they chose their victims, and how they went about abusing them.

My work with perpetrators threw me into a very deep depression – but not for the reasons you might think.

The truth is we all have multiple facets to our personalities and these perpetrators were no different. They were abusers of children, but some of them were funny, intelligent, creative and caring.

After attending their group sessions for several weeks, one of the perpetrators asked me in front of the group how I felt about them now.

“Do you think we are all monsters?” I didn’t.

I could not at all condone what they had done, but I did not hate them. With this discovery, my black and white world of right and wrong, good and evil, caved in on top of me.

All these years later, I am not the same person. Not because I have aged, but because I have learned so much – too much really.

Meeting these people and hearing their stories has taken me to the limits of my psychological, emotional and spiritual existence. It has tested me in ways that I am not yet able to comprehend, and after many of the interviews I would lie on my floor for hours, in shock at what I had heard.

Many times I have wanted to lock these interviews and photos up and walk away from them; pretend I had never seen them or heard them.

Only a sense of obligation to those who shared their deepest, darkest secrets so that it does not happen again has prevented me from doing so.

A child’s drawing at the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children in Johannesburg. April 2003 [Mariella Furrer]
Tinka Labuschagne, a senior education specialist with the South African Ministry of Education, comforts a 10-year-old girl who had the previous day disclosed to her teacher that her brother and two of his friends forced her to perform oral sex. She had severe problems with her eyes, a sore throat, vaginal discomfort, and was suspected to be suffering from gonorrhoea. Thembisa, January 2006 [Mariella Furrer]
The mutilated legs of Susanna. Initiated into a satanic cult at the age of eight, Susanna, 24, suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Having endured severe ritualistic sexual abuse for almost 18 years, she developed DID as a coping mechanism and has more than 200 different identities, many of whom are self-mutilators. The initiations involved many forms of sexual abuse, including bestiality, gang rapes and child pornography. December 2008 [Mariella Furrer]
Thirteen-year-old Jennifer sits in a police car after being rescued during a night raid. Abducted in Durban, she had been brought to Johannesburg and forced into the sex trade. She said that although she had not been made to work yet, the pimp and another man spiked her drink and raped her. Germistan, November, 2004 [Mariella Furrer]
Inspector ‘Stroppie’ Grobbelaar struggles to tell Anna Lesele, the aunt and adoptive mother of seven-year-old Kamo, that the search team hasn’t found anything. Grobbelaar passed by her house every day to keep her posted. The search went on for a month. Kamo was never found. Johannesburg, December 2005 [Mariella Furrer]
The funeral for three-year-old Sibongile Mokoena, who was raped and murdered on November 8, 2003. A 23-year-old family acquaintance was arrested. Due to Mokoena’s family’s lack of funds, a local funeral home donated the casket and paid for the funeral. Johannesburg, 2003 [Mariella Furrer]
A schoolmate of Sheldean Human cries during her memorial service. Two weeks after her disappearance, Sheldean’s body was found after a confession by a 25-year-old man. She had been sexually molested and murdered. Pretoria, March 2007 [Mariella Furrer]

The above is the foreword to Mariella Furrer’s My Piece of Sky: Stories of Child Sexual Abuse. For more information on the book, visit 

This article originally appeared in the January issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download the magazine for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.


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