We are all born with a blank page, which slowly fills with life experiences that shape us and who we are to become. We are strongly influenced by our upbringing, which serves as the foundation for the pages of our own unique life story.
And, says social worker Dr Amelia Kleijn, we will all behave the only way we know how – according to our upbringing.
So if you are brought up with anger, negativity, beatings and rejection as the norm, then you are subject to a vicious cycle of violence. You will grow up thinking that’s the way that you should be, unless someone who cares intervenes – a teacher, a relative, a religious leader or even a caring neighbor.
Children can tick all the boxes for negative behavior, yet not grow into aggressive adults. But Kleijn says that somewhere along the line, that child must have had a positive role model in their life.
Kleijn spent three years interviewing 10 men in maximum-security prisons around South Africa, all of whom were serving long sentences for raping children younger than three.
She wanted to “understand the why”. She emphasized that understanding the behavior was not excusing it. But, if you can understand “the why”, then maybe you can start to find a solution. “If you show empathy for a rapist, it is not the same as showing empathy for their actions,” she said.
She found that the men were all “severely damaged human beings”, and it’s for this reason that they did what they did. They feel no empathy or remorse because they don’t know how.
“When I interviewed these men, when we did the final debriefing, they thanked me because they said it was the first time in their lives that someone actually listened to them without judgment, with empathy and with respect, and that says everything about what went so wrong – that no one listened,” Kleijn said.
It is also important to realize that rape is not about sex.
The victim just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kleijn said rape was about power, and that all the men she interviewed had experienced high levels of anger before committing the rapes.
“Rape is between the ears, not between the legs – they will find a way to manifest their anger,” she said.
As for the babies, those who survived were damaged for life. Trauma, even for a baby, is stamped on the brain, so somewhere it is imprinted. In some cases the child will need treatment for life and, at some point, will need to be told why.
But the problem lies with the parents, too. Kleijn says that children are often not properly supervised or monitored.
Over the years media had reported, incorrectly according to Kleijn, the suggestion that baby rape only occurred in South Africa, and was in response to the virgin cleansing myth. But Kleijn said “baby rape” had happened in every country for a long time. Regardless, it remained a national shame.
She said that the vulnerable sectors of society everywhere included babies, children, prisoners, the elderly and those who are mentally or physically disabled. South Africa did, however, hold the record for the highest reported rapes for a country not at war.
Kleijn believes that the start of the solution is to be positive role models for children, because “we are a nation of greed and other horrible things”.