GRIZELDA Grootboom’s autobiography is brutal, raw and honest. You should read it.
Gang raped at nine, raped again as a teenager, Grootboom was then betrayed by a “friend” into a life of drugs and prostitution. Now she campaigns against human trafficking and sexual slavery. Sadly, the only unusual thing about her is how well she has made the transition from drug-addicted prostitute to just another working woman having coffee in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
Grootboom says she wrote the book for her children, aged 14 and seven. “It is something they have to hold on to. They can say, ‘Well, at least she did something good with it …At least she made a tool, she came up with a thing for people to read’.”
And it is a tool. Read the slim volume and you will never look at a prostitute in the same way again. It’s an eye-opener, and despite the horror and trauma of the tale, it is an affirming read. The human spirit is an inviolable thing.
The violence that women face, daily, at all sorts of levels, must stop, says Grootboom. Trafficking, especially for sexual slavery, is perhaps the most obvious and extreme of this violence. “A lot of people (in SA) think it doesn’t happen,” she says.
It does. There is, however, no systematic research on human trafficking or forced sex work in SA. Last year President Jacob Zuma signed the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act into law.
The problem, says Grootboom, is that South African society too often protects male violence at the expense of female safety. Asked about the comments made by Judge Mabel Jansen that rape was part of African culture, Grootboom, without condoning the judge, says that traditional African culture gives too much power to men and that there is often emphasis on “quiet” apologies — often in the form of payment to a girl or woman’s family.
“I sometimes have to take the train early in the morning,” she says. “You will see a woman, on the back of her dress is semen because if she punches the guy in the face, the blame is on her. Oscar Pistorius. He’s spoken about all the time. No one talks about the woman who got shot dead.” Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steemkamp in February 2013.
After nine-year-old Grootboom was gang raped she went home, blood streaming down her legs, only to be beaten by her mother for not bringing with her the water she had been sent to fetch at a communal tap. Small wonder she left.
What followed was life on the streets, in and out of shelters and the burgeoning of a friendship that saw her lured to Johannesburg, and betrayal. Blindfolded with masking tape, held hostage, Grootboom was abused for two weeks, and then abandoned on the streets, dressed in shorts and a lace top.
“What drove me to drugs and prostitution was the anger and pain I felt after being gang raped at the age of nine,” she writes in the author’s note at the end of the powerful, autobiography. “I did not choose to be a prostitute because I liked or wanted drugs. I was also not ‘forced’ into sex work. Some activist groups advocate that prostitution should be decriminalised because girls (and boys) are forced into this exploitation. But I feel strongly that we must recognise the social conditions that exist in our communities that support this type of exploitation. There were circumstances that led to my engagement in sex work and drugs, and I met these conditions before (subs: her italics) I was trafficked.”
Pregnancy and the feeling that she “could be a woman” started Grootboom’s traumatic exit. Now, although every time she speaks publicly about her experiences she induces a feeling of undressing herself in public, she goes on. “I’m doing this because once I woke up in a hospital bed after being beaten, drugged and enslaved. And I said to myself that for the rest of my life I would fight to make sure other girls did not go through what I experienced… I still go home and cry and have to eat a box of chocolate. I phone my psychiatrist.”
Writing Exit involved a lot of this, but Grootboom says it was also a catharsis. She had enormous support from the psychiatrist, who undertook to phone her on her writing days — three times a week — and from the “sisters” she has met through nongovernmental organisation Embrace Dignity. This is a South African organisation committed to addressing the root causes of prostitution, which it believes is “inherently exploitative, invariably damaging and inextricably linked to the ubiquitous problem of violence against women and children and human trafficking in a society that is essentially patriarchal”.
She speaks, too, in schools across the country, and also in her Khayelitsha neighbourhood. “I find so much pleasure in (the fact that) the young girls in my street come and talk to me about it. That my RDP house becomes a dialogue house.”
One of the things Grootboom is excited about is the June launch of a 24-hour national phone line that will ensure that those who want to escape prostitution will get more than a phone call when they ask for help. These women, says Grootboom, need compassion, especially from other women, and they need immediate medical care. “She’s just been rescued and now there’s a lot of cops, a lot of men … and then, in court she needs a lot of privacy. This is a powerful trauma, physical and emotional. You feel like dying.”
Religious faith has been a support for Grootboom in her escape, although churches she joined turned out to be hypocritical. Her other support has been people. “A lot of people are interested in me getting my dignity back, and that’s where it all started,” she says.
• Grootboom is writing a sequel, has acted in a film and is a campaigner for Embrace Dignity