Being sexually assault is a very traumatic experience and can have a lasting negative impact on the survivor.
However, each survivor has their own way of reacting to and dealing with the ordeal and their unique ways should be acknowledged by everyone around them when they support them through this difficult time.
It is important therefore for the support structure to understand that some survivors will openly speak about the incident while others will not, that some survivors will express their emotions and some will not.
For others it might take years for them to open up about the ordeal while for others it may be immediate.
For those around the survivors to be able to provide support, they need to have an idea of what the survivors are going through so that they can be better equipped to provide the support. The survivors can have some emotional, psychological and physical manifestation of the trauma that they went through and these include:
• Guilt and shame
• Fear and distrust
• Difficulty concentrating
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
• Shock and disbelief
• Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
• Increased startle response
• Constant concern about physical safety
Survivors depend on the support system around them be it family, friends or colleagues. There are four things that one can do to provide the support and to understand how to help the survivor without making them feel guilty and helpless.
Let them know that you are there for them and that you believe them
The focus should be on the survivor and nothing else. It is important for the survivor to know that you support then and more importantly that you believe them. One of the obstacles in reporting rape or sexual assault is that survivors are not believed when they report the case. Therefore, at that time the focus should be on the survivor and you as the support should put your own feelings aside and give them the attention and the reassurance they need.
Allow the survivors to map out for themselves their grieving process and make their own decisions
As the support, you would want to take the pain away and comfort the survivor. It is also natural that you would want to take that pain away quickly and want them to move on. Rushing them through the process is not recommended. Allow them to take their time and work through every stage of their grief at their own pace so that they can have control over their lives and feelings. All you need to do is to let them know that you are there for them whenever they need you.
The support must educate themselves about rape and the myths that surround it
It is always easier to provide support when you yourself have gone through the same or similar ordeal. In a case where the support has not gone through the same thing, it’s important that they educate themselves about rape and sexual assault and understand the myths around the incident so that they don’t get trapped by these myths and further harm the survivor. Some of the myths to dispel are:
o If a victim of rape or sexual assault does not fight back it means they wanted it
Rape is an issue of power where the perpetrator exerts power and control over the survivor, they never ask for it. For some survivors when the incident occurs, they freeze, can’t scream and are powerless. This does not mean that they wanted it.
o Rape is perpetuated by strangers only
Often times survivors are attacked by people that they know, be it a relative, a spouse or a friend. Therefore, the association of rape with strangers only is not correct. The same applies in child cases, they know the perpetrator.
o Wearing certain clothes attract the perpetrator
What you wear does not impact on whether you get raped or not. The rape culture is based on power dynamics and therefore your appearance has nothing to do with it.
Always be ready to lend an ear and listen
This is very important. The support must be a willing, non-judgmental lister and create a safe space for the survivor. At times the survivor only needs to talk and not get a response and what they need at that time is someone to listen.
Support for the survivors is important and is a needed service that family, friends and the workplace can provide. Therefore,educate yourself around the issues or rape and sexual assault so that you can be best suited to be that pillar of support.