Let’s talk about sexual violence…

Rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse and incest are among the most damaging crimes a person can inflict on another

Edith Mecha

Sexual violence is among the most damaging crimes a person can inflict on another. The effects can be devastating, often involving life-changing consequences such as unwanted pregnancies, mental and physical problems, sexually transmitted infections, and sleep and eating disorders.

WHO defines it as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting. It includes sexual assault, rape, sexual abuse, incest, intimate partner sexual violence.”

Sadly, accurate information about the extent of sexual violence is difficult to obtain because most of these crimes are seriously underreported to law enforcement. However, the WHO observes that globally 1 in 3 girls and women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly by an intimate partner.

Just like other forms of gender- based violence, sexual violence is about exerting power and control on the victim. Any person of any age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education status, income, and ethnicity can be affected by sexual violence. In short, it affects all of us starting from survivors, friends and families, communities, and the entire society at large.

Just like other forms of gender-based violence, sexual violence is about exerting power and control on the victim.

Each survivor’s response is unique and may involve a range of emotions including shock, anger, sadness, powerlessness, confusion, guilt and/or shame. The long-term effect of this abuse could include many emotional, psychological, physical conditions as well as a range of sexual and reproductive health problems which may last a lifetime if help is not sought.

The Survivors Trust lists the effects of sexual violence under three categories as shown below.

Feelings of

  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear, distrust
  • Sadness or anger
  • Vulnerability
  • Isolation or loneliness
  • Lack of control
  • Numbness
  • Confusion
  • Shock, disbelief
  • Denial

Experiencing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Flashbacks and Nightmares
  • Irritability and outbursts of anger
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep Problems

Other common reactions include:

  • Alcohol Misuse and dependence
  • Self-injury and self harming behaviour
  • Sexual problems
  • Transient psychotic episodes
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Dissociative Identity disorder
  • Somatisation – Emotional distress experienced as physical pain
  • Confusion about sexuality
  • Parenting Problems
  • Relationship Problems

This snapshot reveals a lot about what the victims of sexual violence suffer. The likelihood that a person suffers suicidal or depressive thoughts increases after sexual violence. Though the intensity varies from one victim to another. It is important to know that there is support out there.

It can be overwhelming and scary to talk to a friend, loved one or person who has experienced sexual violence. Regardless, it is critical to learn about the common myths around sexual violence and some ways on how you can support them and prevent occurrence of these crimes going forward. First, you need to know that you don’t need to be an expert but be a friend.

Here are some ways to support:

  1. Listen without blame or judgment and let them know they are not alone. Studies show that listening alone can make a huge impact in someone’s life.
  2. Let them know that you trust and believe them. This could include compassionate statements like: “I believe you; this is not your fault; and no one has the right to hurt you.”
  3. Ask what more you can do to help them. This could involve sharing resources on national hotlines (medical support, police, counseling, legal aid).
  4. Be patient, available and support them towards making a sustainable decision
  5. Practice self-care. The effects of sexual violence can be painful experiences to friends and families supporting the victim. It is important to get support.
Safe Speak

Studies found that the greater the amount of support survivors received, the fewer PTSD and depressive symptoms they had. Therefore, our support can greatly impact the healing process of survivors.

It is also important to know what to say and what not to when a friend shares their experience of sexual violence. Together for girls has compiled a comprehensive list on the Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to a Survivor of Sexual Violence to help us respond in the best way possible.

Photo: Together for girls

A survivor of GBV, especially the sexual violence type is, therefore, a broken-down victim, that actually needs volatile and delicate handling. To help out with persons who’ve had such life changing experiences as sexual violence constitutes one of the best of philanthropic favors one human could extend to another.

Remember sexual violence is not a victim’s fault and responsibility but the perpetrators. Everyone deserves a life of respect, dignity, and safety.

If you are experiencing sexual violence or know a person who is, know there is help. There are organizations offering appropriate support such as counseling, medical and legal, and advice so that you can rebuild your life and get justice.

Check out more resources here.

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6 thoughts

  1. This’s a difficult topic often easily skipped by even seasoned writers and researchers coz it’s volatile, sensitive and confusing how best to resolve. But your attempt to connect it with first knowing well what sexual violence entails, its long term impact on the victims and an implied cost benefit approach to society proves the best approach to resolving the widespread crime.

  2. Thanks for talking about an issue that is often hidden. More reporting can aid creation of better interventions to address it.

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