By Adedayo Onabade
Sexual violence has been tagged ‘the world’s longest-lasting pandemic‘, and rightly so. Despite the commonality of cases of sexual assault in today’s world, the corresponding attention given to the subject is by no means commendable. It is not surprising to see this when you consider that the argument about whether or not sex education should be adopted into school curricular still holds sway in 2021. If anything, the prevalence of such crimes and their consequences should be a catalyst, spurring action steps to help actualise the possibilities of a safer world.
Sexual Assault in all forms and ramifications can be distressing for its survivors. Their response to the trauma can range from fear and anxiety to a sense of guilt and loss of interest in sex and intimacy even with their partners. However, while these reactions constitute typical responses to the traumatic experience of the victim, getting help is an essential part of the healing journey.
To ignore this crucial step to healing and restoration of mind, body, and soul is to place on the victim a burden that should be for the sex offender.
Today, sexual offences have become so commonplace in society that survivors are shamed for speaking out or being criticised for speaking up ‘later’ than expected. Influential perpetrators seek to avert the course of justice, and notable personalities are acquitted of allegations in the court of public opinion because of their celebrity status. These and many other practices push aside survivors and their narratives.
It is the general ambivalent response to sexual liberty, sexuality and all sexual-related offences that leads to the flourishing of communal vices such as the culture of silence, the objectification of women’s bodies (even in public places like markets) and victim-blaming (where survivors are touted to have been partisan to their violation).
Unknown to many, this sort of response does more harm than good. Because to turn a blind eye does not mean the problem will go away. This will only put the responsibility of staying safe on the victims without cutting off the source of the crime and holding the perpetrators accountable. Consider the following statistics: Out of 304 sexual assault cases, ‘83.6% were below 19 years, 73.1% knew their assailants (the majority were neighbours), most assaults (54.6%) occurred in the neighbours’ homes and over 60% of survivors presented after 24 hours of the assault.’
Over five years, the above study, which explored sexual assault cases in Lagos, Nigeria, can also be used as a microcosm of the whole country. This means that more young girls are likely to be violated than otherwise, and perpetrators can assault their survivors even in the place where safety is most expected — their homes. This also means that survivors will often know their assailants and may have cause to interact with them even after the assault.
This, among other factors such as fear for life, the threat to safety and a resultant life of silent, ongoing trauma, is why we must go beyond simply pointing out harmful social practices. Instead, we must use these as a springboard to continually emphasise the importance of helping survivors. To do otherwise would be to strip sexual offenders of the responsibility of their crimes and their deserved burden of guilt.
So, how do we help sexual survivors?
This is an all-encompassing series of actions we can use to show survivors that they are loved and not alone. With the proper support, they can get adequate, immediate medical help, psychosocial care, intervention to prosecute the offender (if they so desire), undergo rehabilitation to enable them to face life again.
More so, in the case of conception, decision-making as to keeping or terminating the pregnancy can be complex, considering the circumstances. But with guided support, survivors can gain clarity on what is best for them.
It is also the act of lending a listening ear without apportioning blame and respecting their decision; they sometimes may not want to be touched, hugged or even talk about the incident and their feelings.
In some cases, they may want to have conversations that help them take their mind away from what has happened, don’t be too insistent on them talking about it. Instead, allow them to be engaged in other activities and discussions as they would prefer—your presence and sensitivity to what they need, what steps to take legally. In severe cases, say where the survivor is considering suicide or has attempted it, you want to seek professional help.
What not to do:
- Refrain from dismissing the incident.
- Avoid asking why or blaming the survivors.
- Don’t share with others what has been told to you in confidence.
- Avoid asking for details and graphic explanations.
- Don’t be melodramatic (screaming and acting hyper can freak the survivor out).
In all, helping survivors is all about mindfulness, encouraging them and assuring them of continued support.
Remember, you cannot fix survivors; neither can you make the assault/abuse go away. But lending a supporting hand can make all the difference and ease their struggles in finding their way out of trauma.
Photocred: The New Yorker