In 2008, the story of a young woman’s ill-fated walk in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal made headlines across the country. She was gang-raped by four men, her father was tied up and forced to watch. Hers is one of thousands of rape cases that occur in South Africa – most go unreported, the victims nameless and invisible.
Jes Foord rejects that victim status. In a bid to encourage others to come forward with their stories, she bravely chose to speak out after her attack. “With any trauma, it’s like a big ball of poison,” she explains. “It sits in your stomach causing nightmares, making you angry. But every time you talk about what has happened, you’re spitting out a bit of that poison. The more you talk, the more you cry, the smaller and smaller it gets.”
Her character alone challenges the notion of what it means to be a rape victim. While she’s experienced an incomprehensible horror, her sense of humour remains intact. Jes is bubbly and open, sharing jokes and hugs generously. She walks onto set in her billowing red dress, radiating dignity and strength.
Through the Jes Foord Foundation, she’s working to change the way that we see and talk about rape. Established in 2009, the Foundation’s aims are to educate, empower and provide tools for navigating the isolation and sense of shame rape victims are often left with. In Jes’ words, “We are here to be somebody for those who have nobody.”
Jes is adamant that the narrative around rape needs to change. It is not the victim’s fault – no matter the circumstances. No item of clothing can be blamed for provocation and no word other than “yes” can be considered consent. The inclination society has to blame the victim reinforces the stigma and dissuades many from telling their truths.
“I think the reason that there’s so much stigma is because… it’s all about teaching the woman how not to be raped,” Jes explains. She follows this up with a seemingly obvious but too seldom asked question: “Why are we doing that? Why are we teaching the women how not to be raped? Why are not teaching the men not to do it in the first place?”
Her journey from victim to survivor has not been easy, nor will fulfilling her ultimate ambition. It’s an unusual one, longing to see the foundation you’ve established closed down. “But that would be incredible,” she smiles. “That would mean that there was no more abuse and no more rape.” Rather than further recognition, Jes’ goal is simply to no longer be needed.