A Letter to Assault Survivors

‘Effects of sexual assault on future relationships’

‘Multiple sexual assaults’

‘Definition of rape’

‘Was I raped’

‘Can you be raped twice’

‘Can your boyfriend rape you’

‘Please help’

These were some of an endless list of phrases I typed into google search bars, coming through every results page to see if anything could explain the last few years of my life.

Five years ago, if you’d typed any of the above, you’d get a handful of articles (and one pdf document) that documented the phenomenon of repeated sexual assaults. Most were unhelpfully inconclusive as to why it happened, but they were my only comfort in that they at least confirmed that it did.

A victim of multiple sexual assaults challenges our comprehension, and our empathy. We imagine that the after-effects would be hypervigilance, an ingrained wariness of risky behaviors or situations. The human brain, however, does not always act logically when distorted by extreme pain or shame, both of which rape victims experience profoundly.

A devastating letter by the victim of Brock Turner shed light on struggles of recovering from an assault, but fewer of the less palatable effects of an assault are as widely discussed. People are generally willing to accept anguish, anger or fear. They’re less ready to believe that trauma can beget trauma.  If a woman has been so badly burned, some ask, why would she throw herself into another fire?

Smart, strong, reasonable women who have been victimized by sexual assault can still be vulnerable to abusive relationships, sexual situations they don’t know how to control, and unsure how or when to say ‘no’.

I’m one of them. One ten minute incident five years ago spurred me to spend the next 1,095 days unknowingly punishing myself for it. If a boy bought me a drink, I’d feel so guilty that he’d spent $5 on me that I’d close my eyes and bear it when he pushed me against a wall and put his hands up my shirt, even if I’d asked him not to. Was that assault? It couldn’t have been. I didn’t fight him off.

If I came home exhausted and someone I was dating didn’t listen when I said I was tired, then pulled me on the bed and unbuttoned my jeans while I protested, I’d try not to show them I was biting my tongue and crying because of course, this was how men were supposed to treat me and it was my job to put up with it. Also, I’d said yes before. So it couldn’t be rape.

If sex hurt, it was because it was supposed to. If I’d done something I didn’t want to, it was because ‘can we not do this’ was a favour I should be grateful for, not a fixed boundary. If I got hurt, it was my own fault because I should’ve known better. If I started talking about it, the confused looks while friends asked for clarification – “I mean, you said you were tired, but you didn’t insist, did you?” “If you didn’t want him to touch you, why didn’t you push him off?” – pummelled my definition of ‘consent’ to practically nothing.

The more confused I became, the more ashamed I became, the worse my decisions became, the longer my list of, ‘did I want that?’ became, the more my vicious cycle strengthened. Before I hit a breaking point and went into therapy, I would have had to be pulled into an alley kicking and screaming before I considered it rape (and even then I would have double checked what time I was walking home and asked myself what I was wearing).

The only things that would lend my story credence are that despite what happened, I have a good career, I have a stellar social media presence, I’m constantly projecting happiness, I’ve had successful relationships, and I’ve not spoken about it publicly before. The less we speak about it, the less we let it affect us, the more we blame ourselves, the more credible we are. As painful as it may be to lock ourselves into our patterns of behaviour, it is far more terrifying to admit what we’re doing, to admit what’s happening to us. It’s horrendous to be a rape victim. It’s intolerable to be a rape victim nobody believes.

I’m one of the luckier ones. After three years, I stumbled into therapy and a social circle of women I respected with similar experiences. For the last two years, I haven’t cared if someone buys me a drink, and my boyfriends know that even if it’s just because I want to read a book instead, they’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Nonetheless, I’m still hesitant to talk about it. But recovering enough has left me with the gnawing guilt that comes with knowing that there are other women, right now, who are googling, wondering how much of what’s happening to them is their fault, desperately hoping it isn’t.

It took me five years to be able to say, being raped doesn’t mean you deserved to be raped. Being hurt once doesn’t make you damaged goods. You don’t have to spend your life repenting for something you didn’t do. If you didn’t want it, if you say you didn’t want it, that’s enough.

No matter how many times it happens, you should know, it isn’t your fault. You don’t have to live your life telling yourself it is.

Why She Stays: Behind the Doors of Domestic Abuse

Why do you think she stays? Because she wants to? Because she loves him that much? Maybe. But she may also stay because red is the only color she can identify when she sees him. She may stay because she’s terrified of the thought of her children having to live in a shelter, having no financial resources, having no one to rely on. She may stay because he threatens to take her children if she tries to leave.

In the eyes of others, he’s charming and kind. But no one knows that he’s also someone who pays the children’s school fees if he feels like it, and the light bill or buy groceries some of the time, but there’s usually a catch. He always makes sure she and the kids feel guilty about it, as though they’re strangers depending on his unjustified kindness. He’s someone and he’s no one, all at once. This is where her confusion lies.

There are also other things he is not. He is not someone who can give love, because he cannot receive it. He is not someone who is able to put himself in anyone else’s shoes. He is not someone who will share her burdens. He is not someone who wants to model compassion and integrity for his children. He doesn’t know how to pretend to be these things, nor does he care to.

He is not someone who will protect his family, and in fact, he is the one from who they need protection. He is secretly proud of his cowardly ways.

So you ask, why does she stay? What’s wrong with her? Well, would you leave if you had nowhere to go, no one who could help you, no money to feed your children or no way to get them to school or doctors’ appointments? What about if he took away your family’s medical insurance? And what about if your child had some chronic condition? What if he threatened to call immigration?

It seems easy to question some other random person. Yet, it’s more often not some other random person, it’s your co-worker, your neighbor, your friend, your sister. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you don’t know it is. Maybe you think someone else’s situation is worse and so you justify to yourself that yours isn’t that bad, so it couldn’t be considered abuse.

He doesn’t punch or slap you like those other men. He only occasionally curses at you or randomly accuses you of cheating when he’s really angry. Sometimes he shoves you but always says he feels terrible afterward. He doesn’t stop you from working. Yet he drops by unannounced from time-to-time, and come to think of it, more frequently lately.

He says he loves you so much he wants to spend all of his time with you, especially when you try to hang out with friends or make plans to see family. He says he wants to take care of the finances. He gives you an allowance because it’s convenient. He feels there is no need for you to have access to the account. Access for what?

No, no, no. None of this is me, you say. Okay. But are you afraid to say the wrong things, to do something that might upset him, go to places he may not approve of, wear clothes he might find inappropriate? Do you have a running reel in the back of your mind of what he might say about this or that, about just about every decision in your life?

But you’re always on his mind because he cares, you say. I get it. It’s all very difficult. It’s insidious. It’s perplexing. Comprehending his intentions can be difficult and even the fleeting idea of leaving is not an easy one to consider.

Let’s now once again reconsider why she stays, why you stay, why we stay, why we’ve considered leaving, why we don’t have to do any of it alone whether we stay or go. Most of us, 1 out of 3 females in fact, has been abused, most often by a loved one. You are not alone.

So again I want you to believe me when I say it, you don’t have to do it alone, no matter what you decide.

Politics in the Face of FGM: Kenya Edition

Kenya is scheduled to hold presidential elections this coming August. In every election cycle, citizens engage in dialogue and negotiations with their respective political aspirants regarding pressing local issues. Based on past election cycles, these issues include infrastructure, healthcare, education, sanitation, food, security and peace – among others.

In democratic societies, communication between leadership and citizens ensures that information vital to the existence, survival and development of constituents is available to them in a timely and balanced manner. Thus, the visible silence regarding harmful cultural practices by the candidates vying for the various positions in Kenya this year is hugely significant.

Given the officialdom associated with  legislators such as Members of County Assembly (MCAs), Members of Parliament (MPs) and other elected officials, the campaign period provides a perfect opportunity for members of the public to access  prospective power wielders. This is particularly important because, apart from being eventually responsible for representing their people both at county and national level, legislators are responsible for making and amending laws. An early encounter can create a rapport between citizens and lawmakers that will be invaluable during a future term in office.

It is during campaign season that activists have a perfect chance to reach out to prospective candidates and have a genuine discussion about the need to include eradication of FGM as part of any political agenda. These negotiations could not only inform the party manifesto but also raise the possibility of creating an official policy – should the particular party and its leaders ascend to higher office. In this case, anti-FGM activists can piggy-back on political aspirants at the grassroots level to reach out to their party leaders as a means of escalating the message to discourage the practice of FGM.

More specifically, women political aspirants – by virtue of vying for a special political seat of ‘women representative’ – have a more powerful platform to mainstream ‘women’s issues’ within their agendas. They can address the issues that their male counterparts would still rather not talk about. Women representatives aspirants, irrespective of party affiliations, are by virtue of their position expected to speak on women’s causes without fear of losing votes.

Overall, I fault the donor community for the silence around FGM in current Kenyan politics. Despite being conscious that 2017 was an election year, they have not considered the importance of investing in activities aimed at bringing together anti-FGM actors and aspirants in areas where harmful traditional practices still occur. While it is understandable that donors may prefer to remain apolitical, when it comes to battling FGM they must be more willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. FGM is, after all, a cross-party, urgent issue that requires massive political capital.

On a disappointing note, I fear that that most politicians will avoid talking about FGM among other harmful traditional practices for fear of losing votes. It defies logic how leaders elected on the promise of alleviating poverty and misery can ignore or even encourage a practice that continuously enslaves the electorate.

Enjoy Sexual Assault for it to be a Crime

Absurd though it may sound, for a sexual assault to be charged as such the perpetrator of the crime must gain sexual pleasure from the victim by doing so. Or so was the logic behind Judge Anuar Gonzales who, on March 28th, exonerated Diego Cruz for the crime of pederasty and, as understood in the sentence, even sexual assault.

Cruz is one of the five men labeled by Mexican society and media as “Los Porkys,” who, on January 2015 in the state of Veracruz, sexually assaulted Daphne Fernández. She was a minor at the time.

Seeing that the criminal system was getting nowhere with the case, Javier Fernández, Daphne’s father, approached these men and recorded their confession. In the tape, they acknowledge their crime and asked for  forgiveness, promising they would not do it again. But, to the Mexican judiciary, the confession was not evidence enough.

Over a year later, Judge González Hemadi acquitted Cruz in a writ of Amparo. In the latter, he stated that “there was not enough evidence on [Cruz’] participation in the crime of pederasty” even when Daphne testified that Cruz, as well as the other men, touched her against her will.

The Judge added that “touching or incidental rubbing, be it in a public or private place, would be considered a sexual act if the element of intent was to satisfy a sexual desire at the expense of the passive subject”. He also added that she was not “helpless,” as she had the opportunity to sit in the front seat of the car of her attackers.

Long story short, if he touched Daphne against her will, but he got no pleasure from it, he would not be guilty.

Cases of rape and sexual assault are always shocking. But that perpetrators would be spared from their actions due to how much economic or social power they possess makes it twice as infuriating.

And as much I would love to say that Mexican authorities started working on the case because it is their duty to do so, it had more to do with exposure to both national and international media. With other people starting to question the flawed Mexican criminal system for favoring power over justice.

It’s no wonder that in Mexico over 90% of sexual assault victims will not report their cases to the authorities, right?

But this slow and flawed justice  system, accompanied by victim-blaming, is not exclusive to Veracruz. We saw it when Andrea Noel’s underwear was pulled down in the middle of the neighborhood of “La Condesa” in Mexico City and had to leave the country after death threats that resulted from tweeting the video of the assault. The culprit is yet to be found.

Even if the contexts of the three cases are completely different, some similarities are shocking. They prove that, even with enough social pressure via mainstream media, justice will be obstructed in the name of powerful males or an inefficient judiciary.

This needs to be stopped.

Today we stand with Daphne against an unfair criminal law and judiciary. We acknowledge her bravery, and we suffer with her the devastating possibility that three (maybe four) of her rapists are likely to be free. But we also fight for the one in every three women in the world who will face physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Weeks ago Mexico failed us all. Let’s not let this happen again.