- Joanita Smit was gang raped when she was 16-years-old by boys she went to school with.
- The mom of two daughters said she lives with the trauma every day.
- She is now choosing to speak out and help other rape victims.
A Boksburg woman is on a mission to dismantle the stigma around sexual abuse, advocating for mental health after she was gang-raped by a group of teenagers when she was 16.
Now, 30 years later, counsellor Joanita Smit, 46, told News24 she has come to terms with the gang rape which occurred in 1992, but her healing process is far from over.
“I very clearly remember attending a friend’s birthday party in Bloemfontein. Towards the end of the party, I went to change out of my swimsuit when this group of four teenage boys came in and forced themselves on me.
“I remember the door opening as soon as I took my bikini top off, I remember feeling embarrassed, thinking those boys entered the room by mistake. I felt sick to my stomach,” an emotional Smit said.
The realisation of what was about to happen became apparent when one of the boys put his hand over her mouth and told her to ‘keep quiet’.
“I can still smell the scent of his Brut deodorant even today,” Smit said.
Her perpetrators were known to her, as they attended the same school and church as she did.
According to Smit, the reason why she never opened a case was that back then, the majority of the population still believed that being sexually assaulted was the woman’s fault.
“This was also a topic not generally discussed in public. I did not open any case for any type of sexual assault against them, purely based on the shame I felt, the fear of being crucified by society,” Smit said.
She said back then, victims were also treated differently by law enforcement and not taken seriously.
Smit recalls how she got dressed, washed her face and pretended that nothing happened. She helped her friend clean up the bottles and balloons from the party, and then finally left to go home.
Afraid to ask for help out of fear that she wouldn’t be believed, and the judgment she would face, Smit chose not to tell her parents or anyone about her sexual assault.
“I was unable and unwilling to tend to my psychological wounds, I buried my trauma and suffered 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 self-image and her trust in people and weighed heavily on her mental state.
“Since the age of 18, my journey with mental health started. I struggled with depression, but in those years, it was a topic that was not spoken about. Can you imagine? An 18-year-old struggling with mental health when you are supposed to be in the prime of your youth.
“What those boys did to me was cruelty at its highest form, they stole my dignity and zest for life. At the age of 24, I tried to take my own life by overdosing on depression medication. Luckily, I was found in time and lived to share my story with the world.”
Now the mom of two daughters, Smit said it took her years to realise the things she does, says, or feels, are the result of her extreme trauma.
“I’m a survivor.”
Smit 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 made a promise to myself to be an advocate for all the people suffering and all the victims, by breaking this stigma,” she said.
In May 2005, she opened her own early childhood development centre, where she had children from as young as six weeks in her care, but due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was forced to close it down in August 2020.
“I took a short counselling course to offer pro-bono mental health assistance to sexual abuse survivors online. I believe my trauma planted the seed for my passion to help others. It’s the source of the compassion and empathy I have for the struggles of others and it’s the reason I advocate for those who have been abused and why after so many years I can finally tell others my story,” she said.
Realising the need for therapists in the country, Smit is now on a mission to further her studies and become an advanced therapist, to provide therapy for victims of gender-based violence and those suffering with their mental health and other disorders, as well as substance abuse.
“My healing process is ongoing. Although I’ve healed physically, the mental scars will stay with me forever. The biggest part of my healing process was to accept the fact that this is going to take time and there is no quick fix. To progress in the healing process, I had to forgive myself by 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 mental impact it had on her life has been a step in the right direction.
When asked why she finally chose to speak out, Smit said it was important to destigmatise mental health disorders and any form of abuse.
“I have been carrying around guilt, shame and baggage because I didn’t want to talk about it. I am telling my story of how I’ve overcome what I went through in order for it to become part of someone’s survival guide,” she said.