“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel
Silence and fear have been used against survivors of gender based violence. Women keep quiet because they dare not speak out and embarrass the abuser. She may be blamed for what happened. They are likely to be blamed for what happened if not suffer more violence in the process. Men on the other hand though in minority will not speak out since it is unexpected, unmanly to experience gender based violence.
Sometimes the silence is forced by the perpetrator while other times, one just feels they have to keep silence.
I recall an experience I had in my childhood that has remained edged in my mind. I still recall that beautiful Monday morning when I was excited to start a new phase in life. I was 7 years old, and voila, I was getting to the ‘big school’ as we referred to the primary school. I was wearing my pink dress that my auntie had bought me and it was yes a big day, rarely did I get to wear ‘Sunday on a week day. The school is few miles away so I comfortably started my walk to school. In those days it was not an issue for children to walk around the village freely. Since the beginners were not expected to be in school early, my older siblings had already gone to school.
A certain man who was from the neighborhood was walking along the road and at a young age it was always a pleasure to see an adult for company. He started some chit-chat and I responded. In my young mind he must have been ‘a friend’ after all I had seen him say greet my mother! When we reached a junction he suggested a path that when now I think of it had less people passing through. A few meters later he started looking side by side and somehow I became alert. He entered a certain farm and asked me to follow him.
I don’t know how but my 6th sense knew I was in trouble and I ran faster than I had ever run in my life. I don’t remember making a stop until I reached school, panting but not in tears. I was quite shocked. Even at that age I knew I had escaped something disastrous. To date, I don’t remember crying (which is unlike me). When the shock started wearing off, fear set in. I was very scared.
I had a lot of ‘what if”, what if I had not run fast enough, what if he had grabbed me…what if.
For some reason I never told anybody. I knew it was something ‘embarrassing’ and more so I was not sure if anyone would believe. I feared that if I mentioned then the ‘adults’ would have thought that maybe I had actually been sexually violated and I could not imagine such kind of attention. (I would not be surprised if anyone reading this believes I am being economical with the truth! Such is the quagmire with gender based violence; you are dammed if you do, damned if you don’t). My fears were confirmed when about a week later; a girl from my neighborhood was defiled by a different person. There were a lot of hushed discussions about her, and it was traumatizing for her, having to face the public curiosity. I later learnt this man was a serial rapist and he defiled a child who was a few months old. This never became a public advocacy around these but hushed discussions as he sent to jail and came out; defiled other children and the cycle continued.
The experience was traumatizing at that age and for some strange reasons silence seemed the best option, after all ‘nothing happened’. I never spoke about it till my adulthood and this is the first time I have put down a word about it.
In gender based violence silence is the language spoken. Many women and girls, and even men and boys have faced gender based violence but chosen not to speak about it. But what are the consequences of speaking out? The blame often put on the survivor makes it not worth the effort. Questions are often raised about the survivor character where the issue turns to be more about the survivor than the perpetrator. The one assurance that a victim of silence needs before speaking out is to know that, we the society will believe her; to know that we will not look at the so ‘straight CV’ of the perpetrator to judge if she is telling the truth or not. In addition, it is good to realize that children hide when violated due to threats. They are made to keep silence and only a high level of trust will make them speak out. There are other forms of abuse like exposure and attempted sexual abuse that affect children, but it is rarely acknowledged. A child knows/ feels when they have been violated, even when they cannot explain what happened.
As we commemorate the 16 days of activism on violence against women, I know one thing must happen; breaking the silence. As a society we can play a role in addressing this. We can make it a point to listen without judging, and support where we can
The shame is on the perpetrator, not the victim of the actions.