By: Mercy Kwabe
I must confess that before I became very aware of the severity of sexual violence, I often misunderstood the effect it had on abuse victims. However, my interaction with a few people has being very insightful.
Meeting Maryam was purely coincidental. I was visiting the IDP camp to continue a research I was conducting. I noticed how she watched and followed me from afar and I made sure I spoke to her before I left. I am glad I did because Maryam was the first person that opened up to me about how she really felt about being abused. Maryam was from a home where the topic of sex wasn’t discussed like most Nigerian homes and so she was oblivious to it.
When we sat to talk, Maryam told me she had been raped 53 times consciously and she doesn’t know how many times she has been raped unconsciously. I sat there, trying to fight how perplexed I was when she told me she was only 13. When I saw her, I thought she was 18 years old because she looked really mature.
While talking to her at length, I picked out a couple of things that run through the minds of abused individuals, at least for Maryam. Perhaps understanding these things will be the key to dealing with victims of abuse and bringing their perpetrators to justice.
They are confused.
What should they do? How should they do it? When we got talking and I asked her what she did the first time she was raped, Maryam told me she couldn’t remember. I could see how hesitant she was. After some seconds, she told me she didn’t know what to do. She was confused and bleeding and she didn’t want anyone to see so she washed up herself. She told me she didn’t know what to do because the man that raped her was one of the top officials in the IDP camp.
I asked her who he was, she didn’t tell me. And this is because she was scared. She was confused because she had never heard of this kind of act. No one around her talked about sex or being raped. She was also perplexed because there was no one to run to. How do you report a person who was meant to protect you but violated you? Who do you report such a person to?
They are scared of being victimized.
I picked up a couple of things from Maryam and one is that she was really scared of victimization. She had been raped 53 times by 5 different men and all of them told her she wasn’t the first girl they were sleeping with. This made her think she had not right to report her case, after all it had happened to many before her. She also didn’t want to be persecuted. She told me that even if she wanted to report no one would believe her because her abusers were top officials in camp. She was also worried that if she said anything about being abused, she will be punished by not being given food, cloths etc.
They blame themselves
The thing about rape and being sexually abused is that a lot of people undermine is that it has a large effect on the psychology of the abused. When a person has been abused, there are so many things going through their minds; blaming their selves for the attack, regrets, the idea of committing suicide and many more harmful thoughts. Now the need to make them understand that the act was not their fault is very important. I watched as Maryam kept blaming herself for all the times she was raped. She said “I should have fetched my water earlier”, “I should have ran faster”, “I shouldn’t have trusted the man”. I felt so bad hearing her say those words. I tried to make her see it wasn’t her fault but I failed. I knew she only opened up to me because she just needed to talk things out but still yet I felt bad I couldn’t help her see it wasn’t her fault. The abused also tends to harbor a lot of anger and bitterness. This can only be worked on with the help of a professional.
They build defense mechanisms
Abuse changes people. I mentioned how matured Maryam seemed to me. This is because she had built a defense mechanism to deal with the trauma. When I first got to the camp she was one of the first people I saw. She was very distant. She wasn’t sitting with the rest of the girls her age. You could see she had isolated herself from the crowd and there were a couple of girls like her, hanging around in corners on their own. Every time I asked a question she felt was too personal, she got rude. I remember asking her if she had ever gotten pregnant for any of her offenders, she reminded me that it was none of my business. I had to apologize before she carried on talking to me.
While talking to Maryam, it dawned on me that we had failed the ones we’re to protect. Imagine if there was a safe place for the Maryam’s out there to report issues of sexual violence without fear of being harassed. Or some form of mental health clinic where victims can deal with trauma. There needs to be a system in place, one that ensures justice for perpetrators.