When the Safe Place Becomes the Most Dangerous Place

Dawin Meckel/OSTKREUZ
Human Rights

Who do you trust, if you cannot even trust yourself? Abdullah*, a diplomat from South Africa in his early forties, has been looking for answers while coming to terms with his personal story of sexual abuse. His story is featured in the forthcoming book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” Read an adapted excerpt from his chapter, which is based on a dialogue between Abdullah and author Eirliani Abdul Rahman.

I don’t trust anyone, especially myself. This is one of the consequences of abuse though, isn’t it? You don’t trust your actions no matter how sincere or real or altruistic they are. You lose the ability to trust yourself, because that has been raped from you.

Cover for SurvivorsAbuse

Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse

The book tells the true stories of 12 survivors of child sexual abuse. Survivors from Germany, India, Indonesia, the UK, the US, and other places share their stories and the steps they took in their journey towards healing by breaking the silence. Their accounts expose the harsh realities of child sexual abuse and explain the pain it causes, while offering hope and encouragement to everyone who has been sexually abused as a child – and those who care about them.

Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse was compiled and written by Dr Daniel Fung, chairman of the Medical Board of the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore, and Eirliani Abdul Rahman, executive director of the non-profit YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), and was published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, on November 15, 2017 (ISBN 978 981 4794 01 5).

Because of this, all my own actions become doubt. So I question whether I’ve done everything to fight apartheid. And I’m guilty of the legacy of the separation of races. I’m extremely unforgiving of myself. “What is it about my actions that made you feel insecure about me?”– that’s what it is about.

It’s hard for me to talk about myself. It’s hard for me to talk about what happened to me. It’s like I don’t know who I am, why I am and where I belong. Growing up with apartheid did not help either. Growing up in a community that was sort of like “between black and white” didn’t help either. It was like: am I black or am I not black? Do I belong; do I not belong?

After our first discussion, you and I, I started seeing a therapist. What I discovered was that I had a father who mentally checked out on me, who had mentally abandoned me. So there was always a desire to seek a strong male’s approval. It’s not something I ever got from my own father. When my abuser showed me attention and affection, and this sense of belonging – this is where I was – I was in a safe place.

Students in Grahamstown crossing the road, South Africa, 2002. Dawin Meckel/OSTKREUZ

It was never forced. It was never something against my will, but I was confused. He exposed us to pornography. The pornography stimulated us: “Imagine if we could do this, imagine if we could engage in this sort of activity,” he would say and then you know: the detachment, the excitement, the aggression between the man and the woman. He always invited me to sleep over. Nobody
thought it strange. I thought it normal. There never was penetration.

"I have 10,000 questions: questions about my sexuality, my manliness, my alpha, my bravado."

His parents are very close to my mother. That’s why I never wanted it to come out. It would have hurt that relationship. My story is not as intense as a lot of other stories but the impact of it… I have 10,000 questions: questions about my sexuality, my manliness, my alpha, my bravado. Am I man enough? I mean, it’s easy to say something and it’s another thing to believe, but it’s too difficult sometimes. That’s what made me so angry about what happened.

Eirliani Abdul RahmanNGO Yakin

Eirliani Abdul Rahman

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is co-author of the book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” She is also co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection issues, and a member of Twitter’s Safety & Trust Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab.

In 2015, she led a successful campaign of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan entitled #FullStop to #childsexualabuse in India which reached 16 million people over 6 weeks. Eirliani won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.

I have a connection with my wife Nissah; I love her but I just do not think I’m capable of getting and receiving love. Does she feel that? Subconsciously, I think she does. I can disappear sometimes into my own fantasy. I’ll be in my own little world. I do not believe that marriage is forever. If it’s great, alhamdulillah (thanks be to God). If it doesn’t work, alhamdulillah. 

So for me, it’s not so much about what happened but the effects it has had on my life. I’ve always doubted myself. I’m always seeking approval and acknowledgement. I do not ever trust anybody because I cannot trust anybody and I’m aware of it. And so I become academic about it. So I start doing things: this is what a man should be, this is what a husband should be.

The Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) was an eye-opener for me. Before I participated in the GDL, I attended the closing of the International Diplomats Programme (IDP) organized by the German Federal Foreign Office. And I made some statements there. See, that program was me slowly coming back into the world. I had checked out mentally until then.

"God guides me. It’s a very un-Islamic relationship that I have with Islam. I’m a practicing Muslim – I pray five times a day, and I do my shit. Whatever needs to be done."

If there’s anything that I love unequivocally, it would be God. It’d be the Quran, also the as-salah, the prayers.

Again at the IDP, subconsciously, I started being myself. When I asked a question, I could not care what others thought, or the role of diplomacy, or how diplomats had to behave in a certain way. IDP was when those things were manifesting: my identity, my credibility. People around me knew a lot more than me. Come IDP, I was still questioning myself. Was I worthy of being a part of this program? Would people approve of me?

Global Diplomacy Lab

The Global Diplomacy Lab is an innovative and inclusive platform that has emerged from the International Diplomats Programme. It brings together academics, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats from all over the world. Together they reflect on what the foreign policy of the future should look like. The GDL is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Stiftung Mercator, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Throughout my life, before checking out, I did not try to be “the leader.” I never tried to impress. I made history: I was the first black elected to the students’ body. It was 1994 when we had the first democratic elections in South Africa, and I was elected in 1995 to the students’ body.

When the call for applications for the GDL came, I applied and got in. But when I read all the members’ biographies, I became so scared. Why am I a part of this group? Am I worthy? Am I going to make a difference? Am I going to work out with this group? There was a girl who stuck out for me because she – you – had won an award for combating child sexual abuse. So I was thinking, what has God got for me? What’s his plan?

Hallway of a building in midtown Johannesburg, South Africa
Stairway inside a tower building in the inner city of Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002. Dawin Meckel/OSTKREUZ

After I spoke, the guest speaker at the IDP closing ceremony had said, “Watch this guy. He is going to be someone. You haven’t heard the last of him.” All the fears I told you about disappeared. I said to myself, “You know what, you need to stop worrying about these fears and accept who you are. You are in this group because you belong there, and you need to stop holding back. You have
a unique story to tell and it’s a story that none of them have heard before. And whether they accept you or not, fuck it. You are at the turning point.”

"I just stopped being scared. I embraced me."

Yeah, it was not easy, even subsequently. I could not do this anywhere else. It’s like people do not realize when they make it. They are afraid. The moment they make it, they realize: being me, not successful, is a big thing. But I steadily turned things around for me. I did not need to apologize for being me, for being comfortable and secure in my own skin. This is why I’m seeing a therapist – to find truth, to own myself.

Ein Kind spielt in Soweto, dem größten Township von Südafrika, mit einem Reifen, Johannesburg, Südafrika, 2002
Child playing with a tire in Soweto, the biggest township in South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002. Dawin Meckel/OSTKREUZ

I am a triumphant black man who is educated in the letters of life and streets of defiance/South Africa in spite of her current woes manages to produce amazing tales of triumph and success.

I am a triumphant black man whose tongue is pierced by the regales of royalty and the humility of poverty. I am simple just me/South Africa simply just is.

A daddy to the three most amazing souls that God has chosen me to raise! / A home to all who live in it.

* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


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