By: Mosopefoluwa A. Faramade
For an outsider, a rape incident starts and ends at the point of receiving the information about the rape. For survivors, on the other hand, the rape incidence marks the beginning of a drastic turning point in their lives.
Rape survivors experience immediate physical and mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Yet, survivors also have to grapple with chronic problems which can be permanent if not addressed. One of which is the public stigma suffered from people who are aware of the survivor’s rape incidence. Therefore, rape comes with a double burden of immediate and long term physical, psychological and social problems.
How Stigma is Established
- The stigma about being raped can be expressed through comments and reactions of the public including friends, family members and legal institutions upon disclosure. In an interview conducted on Women’s Views on News with Bethany Rivett, this was her story.
“When I told people I had been raped; I was faced with reactions of utter discomfort. Some people were scared to discuss it, some didn’t make eye contact while others said the necessary things in order to move on and change the conversation. However, these people didn’t realize how they made me feel, their reactions gave rise to strong feelings of shame and embarrassment. Surprisingly also, my friends and family made comments that implied I could share some blame for the rape, the questions they asked me suggested that I was the one at fault.”
- Punishment of survivors for reporting: It has been reported that survivors who file complaints against their perpetrators sometimes become the ones who get punished instead of their perpetrators. They are denied employment, housing or educational support such as being suspended or expelled from school after reporting.
- Re-victimization of survivors; Survivors may get re-victimized by the people to who they disclose the rape incidence. By opening up, survivors become vulnerable and can get sexually abused by the people who they report to including family members, law enforcement agents and health care providers. This makes survivors feel more worthless and hopeless as they are being addressed and treated with disdain.
- Loss of social networks: Most perpetrators are not strangers to rape survivors, they are people with whom a strong social bond is shared. These include intimate partners, family members, teachers and so on. Hence, reporting such people is often regarded as a taboo or abomination. For instance, when survivors make disclosure of being raped by a family member at the family level, it is regarded as a family secret and then swept under the carpet with the survivor being warned sternly not to divulge the secret to other quarters. However, if the survivor violates this rule, the consequences that follow can be devastating. This is revealed in the story of Chi (pseudonym) who initially declined to receive care at a health facility as reported by a forensic nurse.
“Chi was the survivor I saw that day but despite showing care and empathy upon presentation, she was not ready to receive the care she needed and declined the collection of forensic samples. This was clearly unusual and I decided to find out why. After much pleas and persuasions, Chi explained that 10 years ago when she was initially raped and she was courageous enough to divulge all the details about the rape incidence, she lost everything. She lost her friends at school and at home, she was stigmatized by her immediate and extended family members because the perpetrator was her dad who committed suicide after being sentenced to imprisonment. Clearly, it was not Chi’s fault that she was assaulted by someone whom she had trusted so much neither was she responsible for her father’s death. But will the society accept this? After Chi made known this fact, I informed her that divulging the perpetrator’s details for this new incidence was voluntary and that it had no impact on the care she was going to receive at the hospital. After this she relaxed and was ready to receive the care I offered her.”- Nurse Ray, Forensic nurse.
The Root Cause of Stigmatization
The stigma laden reaction of the public to rape survivors is firmly rooted in myths widely accepted about sexual abuse which need to be debunked. Such myths include;
- “Wearing revealing clothing, behaving provocatively or drinking a lot means the survivor asked for the rape.”
- “Women who often get raped are those who go out alone at night.”
- “Survivors lie about being raped because they seek attention or regret having sex”.
- “Sexual assault is the result of miscommunication or a mistake”.
- “Survivors who do not fight back have not been sexually assaulted.”
Impacts of Rape Survivor Stigmatization
- Higher risk of mental breakdown: Emotional inhibition and nondisclosure of traumatic events such as rape due to the fear of being stigmatized is significantly associated with psychological problems such as dissociation, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Multiple layers of stigmatization and discrimination that survivors experience, and the networks that foster it, make survivors re-experience the trauma of being raped all over again.
- Stigmatization increase survivors’ risk of committing suicide.
- Deepened low self-esteem.
- Low or increasingly decreased reporting of rape cases. This further promotes the menace of sexual violence by perpetrators.
CHANGING THE PARADIGM
Individuals, communities and institutions need to move beyond the social stereotypes that celebrate the villain and rape perpetrators and be gender-responsive towards advocating for the dignity of rape survivors. This can be achieved by doing the following;
- Shun victim-blaming: Rape survivors do not deserve to go through the gruelling experience of rape and they, therefore, should be celebrated for surviving the experience. Hence, the least we could do as individuals, communities and institutions is to show love and support in several ways as possible. When rape survivors speak up about their rape incidence, listen to and believe him or her. Avoid blaming the survivor for the rape. The perpetrator is always the one responsible for the abuse, not the survivor’s dressing, gender, location or time of the abuse.
- Stand against rape culture: Rape culture is a social environment that normalizes and justifies sexual assault. Avoid using words that objectify or degrade women. Speak out if you hear someone else make an offensive joke or trivialize rape, understand what consent means. “No means No” and not otherwise.
- Get Involved: Show your solidarity with survivors, show where you stand in the fight against sexual violence by volunteering with organizations working ceaselessly to end sexual violence, an example of which is the Stand to End Rape Initiative. (S. T. E. R)
In conclusion, global statistics reveal that more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence in their lifetime, the cost of which is too heavy a price to be paid by both the survivors and the community at large, therefore true justice must be served against perpetrators, unfeigned support must be shown to every survivor while in the process of getting rid of the menace in the long run.
“Rape hurts all of us.”
- Samantha Gluck. Getting Raped: The Stigma of Being a Rape Victim. 2021. https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/rape/getting-raped-the-stigma-of-being-a-rape-victim
- Elizabeth Mamacos. While stigma and secrecy still exist around rape, survivors will remain scared to report sexual abuse. 2021. https://www.news24.com/w24/SelfCare/Wellness/Mind/while-stigma-and-secrecy-still-exist-around-rape-survivors-will-remain-scared-to-report-sexual-abuse-20210216-3
- Rape Crisis Centre, England and Wales. Myths about rape and other forms of sexual violence. https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/myths-vs-realities/
- Sandra Park. How America Systematically Fails Survivors of Sexual Violence. 2018. https://www.aclu.org/blog/womens-rights/violence-against-women/how-america-systematically-fails-survivors-sexual-violence
- Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Violence Prevention.2022. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/fastfact.html.
- United Nations Women (UNWOMEN). 16 ways you can stand against rape culture. 2019. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/11/compilation-ways-you-can-stand-against-rape-culture