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One Man's Fight Against Rape

Posted: 11/28/08 03:57 PM ET

Dumisani Rebombo is protective of his daughters.

He wants them to be happy and marry men who treat them well. It's a dream most fathers have, but not an easy one to accomplish in South Africa. According to the country's Commission on Gender Equality, a woman is raped every 17 seconds.

Rebombo knows this too well. That's why he wants to make sure his daughters don't meet someone like his younger self.

"In my youth, my friends and I, we gang-raped a girl in the village where I was growing up," he says.

It's a shocking statement to hear - especially from a man like Rebombo. The 47-year-old is at the forefront of the fight for gender equity in Africa, traveling the continent teaching men about sexual health and violence against women.

Rebombo knows he can't run from his past. So, despite the painful memories, he uses that past to change his daughters' present.

Rebombo grew up in South Africa under apartheid. The extreme repression and terror witnessed during this period has left a legacy sociologists have described as a "culture of violence" which has contributed to attitudes accepting of sexual assault.

The rape he committed was accepted among the boys in the community. Rebombo was applauded, even given a pat on the back.

Afterwards, he went on with his life, not thinking about the incident. Rebombo grew up and moved away. He married, had daughters. He got a job working at a clinic focused on HIV prevention.

There, it wasn't the life-threatening disease that had the most profound impact on Rebombo.

It was the black eyes. Every week, Rebombo would see the scars and listen to the stories of beatings, rapes and abuse.

In each story, Rebombo saw the woman from his youth.

"I began to personalize the pain of the survivors," he says. "I talked with my pastor about how I felt the need to apologize to the woman I had raped. The pastor said, `What if she goes to the authorities?' That didn't matter. I needed to give her justice."

Rebombo travelled 650 kilometres back to his village, hoping to clear his conscience. He asked around and found the woman. Like him, she was married, had children.

But she hadn't forgotten the rape.

"She looked at me and she cried," says Rebombo. "Then, she said two other men after me had done the same thing."

The woman said she was emotionally unstable, her life destroyed.

"I realized for 20 years I was living this flamboyant life but here was a person who was struggling because of what I did," Rebombo says. "I left the village with a much heavier sentence.

"I knew I didn't want this to happen to my daughters."

Rebombo knew he couldn't constantly watch over the girls. So, he set about trying to prevent rape from happening. Through Engender Health's Men As Partners program, he began teaching men about gender stereotypes, taking active roles in family planning and advocating for women.

Now, from dirt-floored classrooms in rural villages to formal conferences with world dignitaries, Rebombo shares his story with a new purpose - that other men will learn from his mistakes.

 

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