At 21 she endured a brutal gang rape but they didn't defeat her spirit
One hot Sunday afternoon in March 2008, 21-year-old South African Jes Foord got a call from her father Tim asking if she'd like to take their dogs for a walk in the park surrounding Kwa-Zulu Natal's Shongweni Dam. She happily agreed and they drove out together. They parked the car and started heading down towards the lake, waving casually to a group of five young men as they passed by. Continuing to the water's edge, they enjoyed each other's company as the dogs splashed around retrieving sticks.
Without warning, the men they had seen earlier suddenly reappeared, this time brandishing weapons. After robbing them of everything they had — including the car — at gunpoint, Jes and Tim thought their ordeal was over and felt relieved to have survived. But when the men returned and began behaving even more aggressively, they realized their horror had only just begun.
"I thought they wanted to rob us," Jes said. "But instead they tied my father to a tree and held a knife to his throat." While one kept watch over him, the other four ripped the young woman's shorts off and took turns raping her.
"I am here Jes," her father called to her. "The sound of his voice was the only thing that kept me sane during the nightmare. But then they stuffed my dad’s hat in his mouth," Jes recollected. "When it was over and they drove off, I saw the expression in my father’s eyes. It was heartbreaking."
When their nightmare was over, Jes and Tim took action. With the help of a private detective who worked closely with the police, the five perpetrators were apprehended within 48 hours. Jes had to take an extremely strong medication to reduce the risk of contracting HIV which caused her hair to fall out and made her ill for weeks.
But the rapists were behind bars and she was going to see that they paid for their crimes. Testifying in an empty courtroom so that her parents would not have to hear, Jes suffered the defendants' laughter as she recounted the brutal details of the attack. When the judgment came down, three of the rapists received life sentences for the rape plus 15 years for armed robbery. One was acquitted of rape, but convicted of robbery. The youngest offender, only 17, received a 17 year sentence.
Jes Foord refused to let her life be defined by the terrible incident. "I could have let it destroy me," said the now 29-year-old. Instead, she went through intense counselling, as did the entire family.
She and her father became even closer after what happened. In 2009, she met her partner Jonathan through a mutual friend and two years later, Tim Foord had the honor of walking his strong and beautiful daughter down the aisle. "That was wonderful," the young woman remembered. "I will never let what happened overshadow all the wonderful things that have happened since."
2009 was also special to Jes for another reason. That was the year she started the Jes Foord Foundation to help other rape and abuse survivors to recover from their experiences. She was determined that what happened to her would not be for nothing.
A woman is raped every 17 seconds in South Africa. That means that during a single rugby match, 282 women will be raped. Only one in 20 of those rapes will be reported.
Jes has made it her life mission to change that. "I really do feel privileged to be doing what I'm doing because of all the people I've been able to help," Jes said. "So many people come to us and they just say, you know, 'My life's over. I'm never going to get anywhere. I'm never going to do anything. I just want to go and lock myself in the bedroom and never leave.' And then you work with them and you talk to them and you just... to see them evolve, see them become them again. It's just the most special thing."
As part of her work with the Foundation, Jes speaks to hundreds of school children across South Africa to begin the process of changing its pervasive rape culture.
"We live in a society where we are teaching our girls how not to be raped instead of teaching our boys how not to be rapists," she reluctantly observed. With prominent rape cases such as the one committed by Brock Turner at Stanford University being very much in the limelight this year, it's clear the United States has much work to do to combat this attitude as well. Jes says the key to her recovery has been support from her family and talking about her experience. "I always say, it's like when something—trauma—happens to you, it's like a ball of poison. It goes inside you and every time you talk about it, and every time you cry about it, you're spitting a little bit of that poison out. So I'm constantly doing that. I'm constantly releasing that poison."
In 2014, Jes and Jonathan welcomed twins Layla and Daniel to their family. While they are both obviously far too young to know anything about Jes's attack, she is mentally preparing herself for the day when her daughter will hear her story. "To begin with I said I’d let her live her own life. Now I am worried about her, but when she’s old enough I will tell her what happened. I want to be open with her. I don’t want to let one moment of my life control me forever."
One thing is for sure, these kids couldn't ask for a better role model. And although what Jes survived is something no-one should ever experience, that she has taken that experience and used it to help others is something that has won this tenacious young woman the admiration and gratitude of a nation.