Speaking at the launch of the Cheryl Zondi Foundation on Tuesday, Zondi said it was time to stand up for victims of abuse who have been violated in what she described as “sacred places” like churches.

Zondi, who was the first witness to testify in the trial of Nigerian televangelist Timothy Omotoso, said her foundation was geared towards providing support to women and children who have been sexually, mentally, emotionally and spiritually abused in sacred spaces, and also raise awareness of the need for psychological support in such cases.

“The tagline for the Cheryl Zondi Foundation is ‘Turning Pain Into Purpose’. I have named the foundation after myself because of the level of support I received after I came out about my ordeal, and I aim to inspire other victims,” Zondi said.

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“We want to support them through the legal process that comes with speaking out. We want to push dramatic changes in the system to make it work for, and not against, victims. I also want people to stop expecting victims and survivors of assault to walk around feeling sorry for themselves, and stop living their lives. Just because we have suffered abuse of any kind it does not mean we must stop having joy [sic].”

Zondi said part of the problem lies in the fact that many parishioners would rather take the ostrich approach to allegations of abuse perpetrated by leaders in the church, instead of confronting the issue head on.

“As you all know, I spoke out about the sexual abuse and psychological oppression I suffered at the hands of someone who was supposed to be a man of God. To an extent, this kind of abuse is unheard of, or perhaps even ignored because people do not want to believe that their spiritual leaders [are capable] of such atrocities,” Zondi said.

“And having gone through [that] myself, I realise the gap that exists with the support of victims and survivors of this special, complex kind of abuse should be. There is lack in awareness because people out there are warned to perhaps be careful when they go out to a party or when they are out at night, but they are not necessarily warned when they are going to a church, an ancestral space, a traditional space or any other kind of religious setting.”

She was joined at the media briefing by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Zondi has laid a formal complaint with her office, regarding the poor state of the country’s witness protection programme.

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Commenting on the current scourge of gender-based violence in the country, Zondi said South Africans would be astounded by the large number of women who have come forward to lay rape charges against pastors and traditional leaders since she testified.

Lleader of Jesus Dominion International Church, Omotoso faces 63 main charges and 34 alternative counts in the Port Elizabeth High Court. The charges include human trafficking, rape, sexual assault and racketeering.

The 58-year-old is accused of trafficking more than 30 girls and women from various branches of his church to a house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, where he allegedly sexually exploited them.

Zondi alleges that Omotoso sexually abused and raped her and had forced her to perform sexual acts on him between the ages of 14 and 19. She was allegedly threatened with death if she ever left the church.

– With additional reporting by African News Agency