05 Aug Stepping Out of the Shadows: Why Working on Ending Gender-based Violence is so Important to Me
It’s time for me to get personal here.
I have been studying and working on the issue of ending gender-based violence, specifically sexual violence, for almost a decade now and it is an issue that I am deeply moved by and eager to contribute to. Recently, with the uptick in media coverage and public awareness of the pervasiveness of the problem through the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, survivors have been bravely stepping out of the shadows to shed light on the widespread nature of violence against women.
Allow me to step out of my own shadow.
Two short weeks after my 18th birthday, I was raped and badly beaten in a graveyard in Scotland. I literally thought I was going to die that night. I was rescued by a taxi driver, one of my many heroes in my life, who reported the incident to the police, despite my unwillingness and protests. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hide in the earth. Everything in my life changed from that point on.
Shortly thereafter, I was scooped up by the police. I was interrogated for countless hours and had to go through the humiliation of having my naked body photographed and prodded by a male medical examiner. The police had worked tirelessly and successfully apprehended the suspect and charged him, but he was set free on bail – something which left me in a constant state of worry and paranoia that he would hunt me down and kill me.
I was hospitalized and went through painful surgery to reconstruct my face, injuries that took almost fourteen full months to heal from the pain. One of the most heartbreaking things was having the police contact my family to come and collect me. I was mortified to face them and the guilt and shame I felt were suffocating.
My case appeared in the local news media, splashed around carelessly and I had nothing to shield myself from it. It followed me everywhere. My attack would become the only thing I would think about. All day. Every day.
I had to miss a good chunk of school during the time, something which greatly impacted my final grades and dashed my hopes of getting into veterinarian medicine at university. Friends at school turned their backs on me without talking to me. I was forbidden from discussing the case with anyone and unable to defend myself. People quickly blamed me, accusing me of lying or being careless, despite my squeaky clean reputation. No one understood the position I was in.
The cogs of justice slowly ground their wheels. My case was delayed after 8 months of debilitating anticipation. The man who raped me was adamant in his denial throughout. Finally, after 11 months of battling with my mind, my case proceeded in the High Court, and after two seemingly unending days of waiting to testify, the chief prosecutor entered the waiting room and pronounced that the man who raped me pleaded guilty. This time my case caught national media attention and he was branded a “sex beast” and sentenced to 7 years and 3 months.
I was stalked and harassed online by my attacker’s family and others who were angry with the outcome – and this lasted for some time after the sentencing. I moved out of the country to escape the fear of retaliation and to get away from everything and back to my family in Canada.
My attacker was released early from prison. Sadly, six months after his release, he was making headlines again after he raped and beat another survivor – an event that was eerily similar to my own. My case was back in the media again as part and parcel of the coverage. I never felt true vindication, unfortunately, among my peers in Scotland, who continued to deny my victimhood and tarnish my name. After this second incident, he finally acknowledged that he had just been released from prison for doing the same thing.
Almost equally excruciating as the incident itself, were the terrifying aftermath effects. I suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression, suicidal ideation, body dysmorphia and disordered eating, insomnia, crippling panic attacks, fear, among other things for years. For about two years after, I had developed agoraphobia and paralytic social anxiety that affected my ability to develop social relationships and function normally.
To this day, there can’t be enough awareness of this issue of violence that has been driven into the ground by the perpetual discrimination of women. Accompanying this is the fact that there is not enough funding provided to support survivors with services desperately needed to support them in their recovery. When it was my time, the only support that I was offered by the Rape Crisis Centre was a one-off counselling session that happened when I wasn’t ready to talk and the option of writing letters to the organization with no promise of response because they were overwhelmed with cases. I wish I could say that the situation has changed, but sadly it hasn’t. Waiting lists continue to be as long as my arm to access these services and the situation is even more dire in developing countries.
I certainly felt the sting of loneliness during my recovery – but I persevered, kept pushing, and today I am strong and I have nothing to be ashamed about. This experience has (and continues to) teach me much about forgiveness and empathy. I can always hear my gran’s voice in my heart, whose advice has carried me all this way: “One day at a time”.
I have lost count the number of times dear friends of mine (and perfect strangers, too) have come to me and disclosed their own stories of violence and abuse. This is a fact that has fueled my eagerness to work toward a world free of violence and discrimination.
I had always been interested in human rights, but my experience led me to pursue studying sexual violence throughout my studies and Master’s studies. I have been able to contribute to research on the issue both nationally in Canada and internationally. Still, I never disclosed my survivor status to the great majority of people I crossed paths with, including my colleagues. I didn’t want it to interfere with my work or how they viewed me.
Now I am on this amazing journey in northern Uganda, hoping to help shape prevention programming and responses to gender-based violence at the grassroots level. For me, I am completely invested in this challenge and I remain open and I learn something new every day. I hope that in some small way I can contribute to how this issue is addressed through this wonderful opportunity given to me by Eirene Suisse.
I continue to find it difficult to talk about what happened to me publicly. I can point to ten thousand reasons why I haven’t and all of them make sense. Today, I am motivated by the fact that I am surrounded by a team of (mostly) male allies who are eager to address gender-based violence. I am inspired by the courage of survivors who have found a path to come forward. I am encouraged by the strength of those who may not feel able to speak, but find a way to manage just one more day. I hope that together we can help lift the veil of silence and support these survivors.
Now that I find myself on the frontlines, I feel compelled to step out of the shadows myself and I am so grateful and indebted to all those who have offered me support, wisdom and guidance along this road. I want to give my all to the work I am doing here and I feel very committed to doing that.
Even if my case sits among the most “violent” cases of violence against women in terms of brute force, every discriminatory action against women is a form of violence that should not be tolerated. This is why working towards gender equality is so important to me, and it is why we need men to join the ranks and help move all of us forward in creating a more just, safer world for all. We should use the momentum created by these new movements to push against hatred and injustice to make the world a better place for future generations. One day at a time.