Safe Spaces for Sexual Violence Survivors and the Burden on Mental Health

Many years ago, sexual violence was pushed aside as something that happened in lonely corners, bushes and by strangers lurking to have their way. Today, statistics speak otherwise.


Just like it was for me, the perpetrator is someone you know. Trust is what is violated in many sexual violence incidences. Most times, this is someone who was considered safe enough to be invited home, to be known to the family, or even is family or your caretaker. It is this trust that allows for such abuse of power to take place.


Like many victims, I too was raped in my bed by someone familiar, not a stranger. I too, could not summon weighty words to tell the world what had happened to me. The weight of social, cultural and religious expectations continue to prevent victims from speaking up. Victim blaming, shaming and accusations were enough to silence me for years.


Have you ever thought about how hard it is for a victim of sexual violence to come out and tell their story? And how even harder it is for them to be believed? In the past, society has not been very accepting of victims of sexual violence, and many have been silenced because of it.


Imagine the pain and fear a victim of sexual violence goes through. They are grappling with the trauma of what happened to them while also dealing with the aftermath, which can include physical injuries, emotional distress, and mental health issues.


Thankfully, this is slowly changing as more and more people are becoming aware of the reality of sexual violence and its prevalence in our society.


WHAT THE FINDINGS SAY


Recent research in Nigeria has shown that sexual violence can lead to a wide range of negative mental health outcomes. It is important to address sexual violence prevention and intervention initiatives to reduce the burden on mental health caused by this appalling crime.


In 2018, 9% of Nigerians were sexually abused. The largest occurrence was in Gombe. A poll found that 44% of residents had suffered sexual assault.


In 2019, 59 incidences of sexual assault were recorded in Nigeria. More than half of the victims (56 incidents) were female, according to the data. Since 2017, there has been a rise in the number of incidents reported to the police.


At my organisation, She Writes Woman Mental Health Initiative, 7 in 10 women who made contact with us for mental health needs had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. These are real people. Chances are most of the women around you have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Worse still, many of them are unaware because of how normalised these issues are and how desensitized we have become.


THE RISE IN SEXUAL VIOLENCE?


Sexual violence has been a problem for centuries, but it is only recently that we are starting to see a greater focus on this issue. There are many reasons why sexual violence is becoming more prevalent, including:


  • The MeToo movement's rise has encouraged more survivors to come forward and report their experiences.

  • Increased media coverage of sexual violence cases has raised awareness of the issue.

  • Better reporting methods make it easier for survivors to come forward and get the help they need.


Generally speaking, women (who are statistically more likely to be victims of sexual violence), have begun to shed systemic conditioning and reclaim social power in dictating what should or should not be the norm. Women’s rights and feminist movements are working for the realisation of the equal rights of women, and this has consequently led to women demanding better for their bodies and choices.


THE MENTAL HEALTH IMPACT OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE


Sexual violence can have a profound impact on the mental health of survivors. I sum up the impact of being raped into one word: stuck. It truly felt like I was being raped over and over and over again every single day. From hypervigilance to sudden unexplained palpitations to nightmares and more, nearly 10 years later and the experience stays with me.


ANXIETY

We often call people dramatic when they ‘overreact’ to a certain thing or remain in a constant state of worry, but anxiety is a very real thing for someone who has been sexually assaulted. Anxiety is a state of what may seem like extreme irrational fear in a situation. Sexual violence is such an intensely stressful experience that science likens its effect on the mind to what happens when a soldier goes to war. It alters brain chemicals and creates a state of hypervigilance.


DEPRESSION

Depression is not mere sadness. “I am feeling depressed” doesn’t quite capture the state that is clinical depression. This is a state of constant low mood (not typically evident in a sad face). Amongst other things, a person who has depression may have a hard time getting out of bed or carrying out seemingly mundane activities like taking a bath, has changes in sleep and eating habits (too little or too much), and may generally feel hopeless. People who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to develop clinical depression. The effects of depression can be extremely debilitating, making it hard for survivors to function in everyday life.


POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD)

Stuck. That’s what PTSD can be. Victims of sexual violence may constantly relive the violent experience through nightmares and flashbacks. It is important to note that this is not a choice to merely dwell on the past, it is intrusive and cannot be simply gotten over. This can make it hard for them to concentrate or even function in their everyday life. To put it simply, PTSD is like your mind and body feeling like the danger is still present even if the sexual violence experience ended days, months or even years ago. It is like an imprint that follows you around; your subconscious reacting to familiar shapes, colours, people and places with the same vigour it did during the sexual assault.


It is because of this that sexual violence victims avoid places or things that remind them of the incident. You may have noticed a change in behaviour of a female employee in your office, who generally avoids being alone in the office after dusk and lashes out when made to.


SELF-BLAME AND SOCIAL WITHDRAWAL

“It was my fault. I should have known better. I shouldn’t have been wearing that outfit. I shouldn’t have been walking alone at night. I shouldn’t have had so much to drink. I shouldn’t have been alone with him”. The voice in the head of victims of sexual violence is often the voice of social, cultural and religious prejudice and conditioning. In reality, the blame is not on the victim, it is on the perpetrator and there is little that could have been done on the side of the victim. It is extra painful when the voice of self-blame that the victims already struggles with is echoed when help and support are sought. It further reinforces shame and keeps the victim silenced.


The majority of victims often blame themselves for what happened and have no choice in the absence of safe spaces but to isolate themselves as much as possible to avoid triggers or harmful words. It is very important to be cautious about the words we wield toward a person who has been sexually assaulted. Good intentions are not enough.


WHAT WE CAN DO


The prevalence of sexual violence incidences is a collective failure of society. Similarly, curbing its prevalence requires individual and collective effort. It is not enough to equip women with self-defence skills or push more guidelines on how women should dress or behave. We must identify the issue of patriarchy, and power imbalances in raising the girl and boy child as well as collectively ensure that women’s agency and choices are protected at all times.


As we work on nipping this in the bud, we can take the following actionable steps:


1. BELIEVE THEM

The first and most important thing we can do is to believe people who are victims of sexual violence. It is hard enough for them to come out and tell their stories. The last thing they need is to be doubted and shamed in silence. Studies show us that less than 5% of sexual violence reports are false. Don’t try to offer advice or tell them what they should do. Just listen and let them know that you support them.


2. RESPECT THEIR DECISIONS

Victims of sexual violence often face a lot of pressure from family, friends, and society, in general, to report the incident to the police or go through with a trial. Sometimes, the pressure is on staying silent and not ‘airing your dirty laundry in public’. However, it is important to respect their decisions. Forcing them to do something they are not ready for can further traumatize them.


3. CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR THEM

Let them know that you are there for them and that they can come to you anytime they need to talk. Create a safe space for them where they can feel comfortable sharing their experiences. At She Writes Woman, we run a 24/7 toll-free helpline that provides mental health first response through trained counsellors. Anyone in Nigeria in need of mental health support can call 0800 800 2000 or even book free teletherapy sessions HERE.


4. OFFER PRACTICAL SUPPORT

Support is what a person says it is. Don’t try to be a saviour. Always ask what support looks like for a particular person. You’ll be surprised at how differently it can be from person to person. Depending on what they say, provide them with practical support such as driving them for a therapy session or offering a quiet place for teletherapy, child care, or housing if they need it. Let them know that you are there for them and will help in any way you can. Sending resources to them like sharing @shewriteswoman social media posts can ease them into feeling safe and realising that they are not alone


5. MAKING WORKPLACES, SCHOOLS AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS SAFER

Encourage your employer to create a safe and supportive environment for employees who have been sexually assaulted. Chances are that people are unlikely to voluntarily share their sexual violence experiences so having policies in place that provide for unexplained paid leave, and anonymous mental healthcare can go a long way in ensuring that victims feel safe in accessing support services and get the time they need to recover. Teachers must be taught to spot PTSD indicators in children and be first responders. Children must be taught age-appropriate sex education and religious institutions must use the power of the pulpit to preach against social injustices whilst providing safe spaces.


Female workers should know that their reports will be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. Businesses should also have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and assault; not just in policy but in practice.


6. EDUCATING YOUNG PEOPLE

Spreading awareness about sexual violence is crucial for prevention. We can help educate young people about this issue by teaching them about consent, healthy relationships, and how to identify and report sexual violence.


Share what you have learned with others to help break the silence around sexual violence and raise awareness about this important issue.


7. HOLDING PERPETRATORS ACCOUNTABLE

The one who makes other people's life miserable should never go unpunished. Unfortunately, in many cases, they do. If we do not stand up for the victims, then we are indirectly encouraging the perpetrators, and the idea of creating safe spaces will never be realized.



RESOURCES

In Nigeria, you can contact the She Writes Woman 24/7 Mental Health Helpline on 0800 800 2000. In other countries, you can find your local resources via the Thrive+ Country Profiles.



Written by Hauwa Ojeifo, Founder of She Writes Woman and Law Changer in Nigeria | LinkedIn | She Writes Woman


 

References:


https://www.statista.com/statistics/1261242/prevalence-of-sexual-violence-in-nigeria-by-state/


https://www.statista.com/statistics/1261224/reported-cases-of-sexual-abuse-in-nigeria-by-gender/


https://www.svri.org/sites/default/files/attachments/2016-04-13/MentalHealthResponse.pdf