How to support survivors of sexual assault

Step One, Believe Them.

support survivorsImage courtesy: SAMANTHA PATTEN/www.dailycal.org

It’s time to take the conversation about sexual assault out in the open.

Recently, a young woman was sexually abused in a locality in New Delhi. She recalled the incident to the magistrate court, and what she revealed confirmed the worst about the state of our law enforcement and social systems. While it was her legal right to be able to file an FIR, the policemen at the station at Vasant Kunj insisted that she returned to her accommodation and come back the next day. Next, when she tried to ask a female policewoman present at the station to drop her home, the individual blankly refused. While the investigation into the case is ongoing, what this case brings out is exactly why survivors of sexual assault – even if they make the choice to do so – are stopped from reporting or speaking out about the abuse.

Unsupportive behaviour/responses from family members can also have a severe impact on how the survivor views an experience of abuse. Along with having negative consequences/effects on the survivor, the behaviour can also lead to a breakdown in communication and family relationships.2 When family members do not listen or believe the survivor, the survivor can internalise the stigma and experience self-blame. They may also feel unsure about disclosing this experience any further – even to seek mental health support, report the crime, or visit a medical facility.

Supporting a survivor

Who is a supporter? The supporter could be YOU at any point in time. Remember that sexual assault can happen to anyone, and each individual’s response to the assault is unique and valid. It is difficult to know exactly what to say when someone discloses an experience of assault to you – this could be a friend, family member, or even a partner. As a supporter, you must understand that disclosing the experience was not easy for the person. Therefore, you must ensure that you create a safe and supportive environment for the survivor.

What can I say as a response?

According to leading charity RAINN, here are a few statements that could help you in the process.1 (These statements were recommended by their National Sexual Assault Hotline staff that converses with survivors on a recurring basis.)

I believe you.

Why is this important: Disclosure can be an immensely difficult experience for the survivor. Saying the words “I believe you” in place of asking questions to determine facts about the incident is the first sensitive step. Remember that everyone responds to their experience differently and are allowed to disclose as much or as little information as they want to.

 It is not your fault.

In the Asian culture, there is an unfortunate culture of victim-blaming. After an experience of assault, the individual, due to unsupportive behaviour/responses from family members, friends, partner or others, may internalise the blame.

Remember to let the survivor know that it is not their fault. The blame for the assault only lies with the perpetrator of the crime.

Other ways to support include saying “you are not alone” and asking them if they would like to seek help, or “this shouldn’t have happened to you”. For more information on these resources, visit the RAINN website.1

It is up to the individual if they would like to seek legal, medical, or mental health support. At every step, remember that the power and control over the situation are in the hands of the survivor. If they do choose to seek support, you could provide them with resources and information on helpline numbers, crisis centres, or help them report the crime or go for a medical examination. It is also critical to only refer the individual to verified and sensitive services and keep any information that the survivor wants to keep private as confidential.

There is no fixed time for recovering from the experience. Therefore, you should ensure that you check-in with the survivor in the long-term. Remember, as a supporter, you can help break the silence around the conversation about sexual assault and ensure that the systems around you are held accountable. For more information and support, please refer to the RAINN article: https://www.rainn.org/articles/tips-talking-survivors-sexual-assault.

References

[1] https://www.rainn.org/articles/tips-talking-survivors-sexual-assault

[2] https://aifs.gov.au/publications/ripple-effects-sexual-assault/secondary-victims-sexual-assault

By Satvika Khera

Satvika Khera is a human rights researcher and activist. She currently works on building open resources for survivors of sexual abuse with nonprofits in India and the UK. You can connect with her on satvikakhera7@gmail.com


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