STIGMA over sexual violence is preventing rape victims from getting the medical and psychological support they desperately need, for fear of being cast out by their families and communities, the Christian charity Tearfund says.
The charity has spoken to more than 300 survivors of sexual violence from conflict-ridden countries, including Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia, and the Central African Republic (CAR), and it found that the vast majority had stayed silent about their rapes in order to prevent further rejection or abuse.
Tearfund’s head of sexual violence, Veena O’Sullivan said: “We spoke to women who suffered brutal rape only to be rejected and ostracised by their families and communities. Stigma is preventing women from getting the medical, legal, economic, and psychological support they so desperately need.”
She called on governments and aid agencies to work with communities to change attitudes and end the stigma attached to sexual violence. Working with faith leaders to change attitudes could transform attitudes; yet too often now churches were worsening the shame felt by abused women, she said.
Survivors in DRC and CAR, many of whom reported that they had been gang-raped, often in public, by armed men during conflict, said that their trauma was compounded by being abandoned by their husbands or immediate family as a direct result of their ordeal. Even where services were available, very few sought the medical support they needed owing to fear of stigma.
In Colombia, women spoke of the same fear of rejection and abandonment. One third of the women said that they had been abandoned by their husbands as a result of being raped by armed men.
Esperande is a survivor of rape from Burundi. She was raped when she was 12, and was fleeing fighting in the country’s civil war. Her family died in the conflict, and she had no access to any services to help her deal with the rape. Twelve years later, she married, and was abused by her husband.
Esperande now runs support groups — backed by Tearfund — in South Africa, for women who have survived sexual violence. She said: “I did not get any help, but survivors just did not talk about it. I didn’t forget, but you choose to survive. Years later, I was depressed and in and out of hospital. I met Tearfund’s team and went to a Bible study. . . I came to know the team leader and it was the first time I had someone to listen to me.”
The groups she now runs are for women from all over Africa who have fled sexual violence in conflict. “Most are raped or gang-raped. When they feel able to break their silence, we can help each other.”
This week, until 10 December, the United Nations campaign 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is running, supported by Anglican churches and the Mothers’ Union, which has been holding vigils across the country.