Google the word “rape,” click on the News tab, and you will have more than eleven million results. The constant din of horrific, incomprehensible acts in the news from Syria to Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo saturate almost every news cycle. Here in the United States, the uncomfortable discussion about campus rape culture and high rates of sexual violence in the US armed forces deepens the misery fatigue of many viewers and readers.
The dialogue surrounding rape culture, rapists, and survivors needs a solid reset - including in the advocacy community. It is appropriate to provide context to constituents, media, policy makers and donors but, it is never appropriate to expect a survivor will exhibit “strength” or “sadness” on queue. Our “inspiring” stories are not fundraising fodder and we don’t have an obligation to star in the made-for-television messaging campaigns claiming they will restore our dignity or “give us a chance.”
Dignity is inherent. The devastation we survive - medical, physically, and emotionally - is our pain, our scar. But none of this erases an inherent truth: dignity lies within us all, survivor or not.
Dignity is not a commodity. And a survivor’s body, experiences, and soul are the survivor’s alone. Suffering should never be monetized, however good the intentions are behind such messaging.
Programs that benefit survivors must be culturally relevant, accessible, and meet both immediate and long term needs. The programs should be designed to scale-up. Every survivor has a different journey, and every survivor’s support network of family and friends, or lack thereof, is unique. One size fits all empowerment chatter all too often relies on a sliding scale of perceived, and salable, innocence. Was she young? Was she a virgin? Was she dressed modestly? Was she polite? Was she drunk? Was she a mean girl or a nice girl? Was she old enough to consent? Will anyone step up and confirm that “she” met the definition of a Perfect Survivor?
Here’s the thing, I was a 17 year old naive, prudish white girl from Georgia that had been on the dance team when I found myself being held against my will, gang raped by young men who did not care if I was any of those “perfect” things. They were evil. I was scared, scarred, and broken for many years. Because I believed the messaging - maybe I wasn’t perfect. Had I done something wrong? Did I ask for it?
The answer, to any and all questions, was no. It was their responsibility not to rape.
Even with more than two decades of therapy since I became a survivor, it took until March of 2013 for me to recognize that evil does not discriminate but sometimes, programs and resources and people may. If I had been a woman of color here in the United States, or anywhere around the world, the extensive services available to me would be significantly reduced or nonexistent. It is important to note that aftercare is critical, and black and brown lives matter too. Not one woman or man, girl or boy, gender fluid or transgender person, should ever be denied care because they don’t meet an arbitrary definition of the Perfect Survivor - or because of poverty, or any other factor.
Survivors find each other, we swap stories. I was widowed at 25 with a two year old daughter who is now a brilliant academic and thoughtful, mindful advocate for survivors and oppressed people around the world. My support circle includes women who were raped in Congo, Darfur, on American university campuses, on European vacations, and in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. My circle also includes women and men that are lawyers, physicians, academics, my family, and friends. Our stories are stark in their differences but our shared suffering or empathy for others has turned to strength. Our concerns for other survivors being marched in front of cameras, often without informed consent about where and how their image and story will be disseminated.
It is important to preserve privacy and a dedicated space for healing. Advocacy cannot overshadow the very real needs of survivors to prepare for the journey ahead.
There are many kinds of survivors. There are just as many heroes developing critical, front line programs that respect the agency of each person they treat. With trusted media partners, accurate and compelling stories can make all the difference in raising awareness and comforting survivors and their loved ones. Ethical policy, governance, journalism, and advocacy can work in tandem with survivors and groundbreaking, innovative programs and healers. Together, we can develop strategies that respect survivors instincts, limits, and readiness.
Respect and dignity drive us to know when to advocate. When to speak out. How we speak out. How we heal. And when.
Elizabeth Blackney is the Media and Communications Director for Panzi Hospital and Foundations, founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege in Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.