How can I be there for you?

Mathangi Swaminathan
Mathangi is a second year of the MPA/ID program at HKS. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the column are personal and belong solely to the author.

Responding to sexual violence – an appeal in times of distress

“Always assume women around you have undergone sexual abuse in their lives unless stated otherwise,” said my friend, in a heart-wrenching remark.

According to UN Women, 35% of women around the world have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. India, where I am from, is no different; one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Yet, we assume these women are unknown to us, hidden in some part of the country. Definitely not anyone we know.

As the #MeToo and the #WhyIDidntReport campaigns spread across social media, I read several astonished comments from friends and relatives, reacting with surprise to the fact that someone they know has been a survivor as well. There is a reason why people who have been abused are not able to speak up. It is because of us, people like you and me, who have created such high stakes and made it so incredibly difficult for survivors to speak out and speak up.

The Kavanaugh hearing was a deep reminder of the world we live in today. It showed us how difficult it is, to not just speak up but also to punish the abuser. It showed us why abuse and violence are so easy to commit. It showed us why the global cost of violence against women is so huge. At 2% of global GDP, it is much more than the costs of homicide and civil war.

Given the hostile situation we are in today, what can you and I do, to make life easier for survivors around us?

Abuse often comes with gaslighting where the abuser makes a victim question her own sanity. Given how victim blaming and shaming are such widespread phenomena, the first instinct of many survivors is to blame and shame themselves.

Can you imagine what it would feel like, to have been abused or raped, and then feel that you are responsible for having been raped in the first place?

How then do we support someone who shares her trauma with us? How can we be there for her as she heals and processes what is a systemic failure of our times?

The first step is to listen.

Listening to the emotions, as well as the words. Listening to trauma is painful, no doubt, but remember that your pain as a listener is different and separate from her pain as the survivor. Learning to distinguish that, is critical to active listening.

Here is a person who has chosen to trust you, with a deeply painful and personal story, so respect that. Listen to her with empathy and hold steady. Sharing takes an incredible amount of courage. Appreciate that she took that huge step of sharing it with you.

And never pressure her to fill in the gaps in your missing story; you need that, she doesn’t.

I have witnessed hundreds of families, friends and colleagues blaming the victim, ignoring her, or undermining her authority by cross-questioning her, negating her statements, worse yet, mocking at her or making a joke and isolating her in the process. As a result, the few critical moments of trust that she has taken months or even years to build is completely destroyed.

To reduce your own and her distress levels, it is natural to want to ‘lighten the mood’. I find listeners immediately responding with a ‘forget what happened’ and ‘move on’ rhetoric. That’s very damaging because it is plainly dismissive of her feelings and shows you don’t understand the gravity of what happened. It is deeply insulting.

If you have ever experienced sexual violence in your lives, you would know that it is, in fact, not easy to forget. Not easy to forget those dark nights and locked rooms, that feeling of being crushed, those tears of deep intense fear, those nights when you lay awake always afraid someone might open the door once again, those days when you thought you could not make it out alive, all those nights when you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you, so you wouldn’t die of the pain and the humiliation. I wish it were that easy to ‘snap out of it’. Unfortunately, it is not.

As I watched the Kavanaugh hearing yesterday, questions kept ringing into my mind: What impact is this incident going to have on the millions of women who are on the threshold of telling their stories to the world? Would they have the courage or the trust to go to the courts, or to testify before a Judge, knowing survivors would not be believed?

Only time will tell.

But, you as a listener, can make it easier for her to heal. Tell her you are sorry for what happened, listen to her, offer emotional support and ask her how you can support her. Give her the time and the space to heal.

Give her the time and the space to heal.

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