How do you cope with Sexual Violence and Rape? (continued from previous post August 11, 2020)

How do you cope with Sexual Violence and Rape? (continued from previous post August 11, 2020)

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Rev. Fr. Thomas Oyode 

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One often receives reactions that disagree with the use of the word “cope”. It seems wrong to ask that societies should seek to cope with sexual violence instead of eradicating it. As a matter of fact, “coping” in this essay, more than being understood as merely learning to live with the effects of rape, encapsulates both exploring ways of healing for the victim as well as preventive measures as we shall see in the subsequent discourse. Meanwhile, we have introduced the use of the term “survivor” as an alternative to “victim”. The victim of sexual violence is, in fact, a survivor of an unfortunate social system.

Researchers have observed that most victims/survivors, especially women, tend to cope with sexual violence rather in silence. This is because the legislative systems of most countries seem not to empower the victim as much. McGregor’s research (2005), in fact, makes us believe that the victims are made to feel responsible for the crime of sexual violence. In spite of these findings, the current trend is that society is becoming ever more aware of the danger of sexual violence and there are veritable reforms seeking to eradicate this cankerworm.

One major important step in assisting victims of sexual violence is an assessment of the victim’s response. This usually depends on the severity and degree of reaction to the experience. The context and effects of sexual violence identified above (see previous post on this blog) may be helpful in this assessment. However, there are other psycho-physical responses or effects not mentioned above. They are what may be referred to as post-traumatic symptoms or reactions as deduced from Patti Levin’s findings (http://www.trauma-pages.com/s/t-facts.php). They are:

  1. Body pains; headaches, backaches, stomachaches etc.
  2. Sudden heart palpitation
  3. Constipation
  4. Difficulty in sleeping
  5. Easily started by noise or unforeseen touch
  6. Easy susceptibility to cold or illnesses
  7. Fear and grief
  8. Irritability; outburst of anger and resentment
  9. Mood swings
  10. Nightmares and panic
  11. Withdrawal
  12. Depression and lack of trust

There should also be physical observations for any form of injuries on the victim. The first response to this is to give water and food, if necessary, followed by immediate medical treatment.

Having identified these reactions, another important step is social acceptance. Victims of sexual violence cope better depending on the variables in the degree of socio-cultural reaction. By this is meant reaction from family members, friends and the general society. Thus

  1. An enabling environment where victims can speak up should be created especially through legislative means.
  2. Schools should provide for the protection of the victim against bullying and shaming by other students.
  3. Parents should not victimise or send survivors out of the house. This would reaffirm the victim’s self-esteem, knowing that it is not his/her fault.
  4. Praise the victim for surviving. Women’s mode of dressing is not a cause for rape and it cannot be taken as excuse for condoning rape. What has a three-year old’s mode of dressing got to do with being raped by an older adult? Yet we have seen reports of aged men raping very young children who barely can dress themselves up without the aid of another adult. Going out at night is not an excuse either.
  5. Adequate healthcare and psychotherapy should be encouraged and given. In most hospitals of the world, there is an institutional provision for prompt response to people who come with cases of sexual violence.
  6. In severe cases of post-traumatic reaction, the victim should be relocated. This would not affect any legal process against the offender whether in civil law or in ecclesiastical (canon) law.
  7. Call off the relationship if it involved a partner.

Society’s response to victims of sexual violence is fundamental because it affects and influences victim behaviour. This is the sense in which coping is repudiated. It is a form of managing emotions. Such that the victim may either be made to change how they feel about the victimization or change their interpretation or understanding of the actual experience. It is a state of mental confusion (White Kress, 2003). This, itself, is trauma enough. It leaves the victim struggling to express their experience of victimisation in a way that society would accept and understand irrespective of how they really feel.

Next is to pay attention to the victim’s specific personality make-up. A victim with low self-esteem or poor self-acceptance would tend to exhibit a more severe reaction to sexual victimization. Such persons would tend to blame themselves for the crime. They have higher level of shame. Some ladies have been made to think that their behaviour led to their victimization: perhaps I shouldn’t have been out alone in the night…maybe it has to do with the way I walk or talk. There is absolutely no excuse for rape.

There should be adequate knowledge and conceptualization. It is not surprising to find that some victims are not aware of actually being raped. Some who have been sexually victimized by acquaintances and dating partners chose not to see it as rape and decided not to report it to the appropriate authority. 

The issue of gender equality is also fundamental in preventing sexual violence. The education of the girl child is therefore of high premium. It should however, not stop there. There should be equal affirmation by parents in parental upbringing of their children. This would help the male child to see his female counterpart as an equal partner in dignity with equal rights to everything that society has to offer. In this way, the boy child is not trained to see his female counterpart as a mere ancillary or second class human.

There is also the role that domestic violence plays. Parents should guide against domestic violence and government should ensure that laws are formulated and implemented to prevent domestic violence. This is because sexual violence has been reported to bear a strong relationship with domestic violence; children who have experienced domestic violence are most likely to engage in sexual violence. In the same way, persons who have been sexually victimized as children are most likely to engage in sexual violence.

Legal and security factors: Rape in Nigeria is known as an offence according to chapter 21 of the criminal code which deals with offences against morality (see Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990). However, this has not put an end to rape, sexual violence and sexual abuse of children. There is so much more required beyond enacting laws in the fight against sexual violence. 

Also, there are two documents that I find very important and highly recommendable for a research into the legal dimension of this discourse. They are: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for the Advancement of Women, “Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women” ST/ESA/329, 2009 and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for the Advancement of Women, “Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women” ST/ESA/329, 2009. These documents as well as many others from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation give us information on the legal approach to the battle against sexual violence on the global level. According to these documents, the following points are noted:

  1. Free legal aid in criminal proceedings.
  2. Support in court which should include being represented by a specialized survivors’ service. There are Non-governmental organizations who engage in services such as this. They do reporting, care, counseling, accompaniment and support. They should accompany the victim or survivor, very often, in the process of seeking justice. This includes even moments of police visits.
  3. Protection of the victim/survivor against any physical meeting with the defendant when appearing in court, in camera proceedings or testifying through video link.
  4. Taking care to ensure that evidence of the victim’s/survivor’s past sexual history is never be admitted in criminal or civil proceedings.

Where possible, there should be free legal aid in entire the legal process including complaints and investigations. Also, security response should be swift and prompt in giving feedback to survivors. Unreasonable delays in this regard usually worsen or exacerbate traumatic conditions. In the same vein, victims and their families should get regular updates and reports about the investigation.

The aspect of training is also important for security personnel, judges and lawyers. Seminars should be organized regularly for them on the processes of report, referrals, prevention of discrimination, evaluation of violence and victim’s reactions, the legal trends involving matters of rape and sexual violence, and so on. Law students as future professionals should also be availed of such seminars.

Furthermore, governments should go extra mile by ensuring that women are also protected from security agents. In a report by Amnesty International 2016-2017 (Interview with Amnesty International between April 2016 and May 2017), it is observed that the military themselves have been involved in sexual violence against women in IDP camps in Bornu state of Nigeria. As it were, this is an abuse of authority, and most times, the victims fear for their lives and would not report these abuses. In this report, it is also noted that civilians were usually aloof. It is thus, recommended that civil groups should also focus on the military in protecting women against sexual violence and rape (Amnesty International, Nigeria “Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women” 6th Session, 3-21 July, 2017).   This is but one example as it is common knowledge that military officers usually engage in acts of violation of women during military raids and in war times. In fact, there are cases of sexual violence in the military ranks itself. The Pentagon’s Defense Department, 2019 reported that about 7, 825 cases of sexual assault were reported in the year under review.

There should be training on self-defense against sexual violence or assault. This is already in place in some countries of the world. The United States has this as part of the training programme for its military; it is called the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. It furnishes them with the knowledge of providing support for victims. Some countries also provide hotlines for quick response in cases of sexual violence. As an alternative to this, in Nigeria, we have support groups, NGOs and Christian organizations like the JDPC of the Catholic Church.

In all, it is the responsibility of everyone to protect the rights of every individual. Therefore, the first step to eradicating sexual violence from the human society is to construct the right social system of socialization and education. This system should be built on equality for both genders. Human society has been somehow wired to see the man as active and aggressive and woman as passive and defensive. The result is a system of subjugation and humiliation and male domination. Socialization also means that school curriculum and religious education should attempt to clear every grey area whereby the boy child is not convinced of the dignity of the girl child and of the fact that the girl child is entitled to rights to any position or opinion anywhere in the society even if it is an all men group. Most importantly, every strategic action against sexual violence should begin more from a standpoint of prevention than solution.

FURTHER READING

  1. McGregor, Is it rape? On Acquaintance rape and taking women’s consent seriously, Burlington: Ashgate, 2005.
  2. E. Wyatt, et al, “Internal and External Mediators of Women’s Rape Experiences” in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 14, 1990, 153-176.
  3. E. Kress et al, “Responding to Sexual Assault Victims: Considerations for College Counselors” in Journal of College Counseling, 6, 2003, 124-133
  4. Levin, “Common Responses to Trauma and Coping Strategies” http://www.trauma-pages.com/s/t-facts.php (Retrieved 16/08/2020)

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Fr. Daniel Evbotokhai is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Auchi, Edo State, Nigeria. He was ordained October 20th, 2018. He offers his daily homilies, talks and articles that bother on, faith, theology, morals and many other burning issues in religion and politics. Fr. Daniel writes poems, inspirational quotes and clips.