Sexual violence: Wounds that time won't heal

For the UN 16 days of activism to end violence against women, from 25 November to 10 December, the United Nations Regional Information Centre has collected these three testimonies from young French women.

Their names are Charlotte, Emma and Marie (their names have been changed to respect their request for anonymity). They are all three students and they all have one thing in common: they have been victims of rape or sexual assault. Like them, one student in twenty has already been a victim of rape and one in ten has been sexually assaulted.

The attacker is rarely a stranger in a dark street. In fact, 9 out of 10 victims knew their attacker. This is the case of Emma who was raped several times at the age of 15 by her girlfriend’s best friend, then at 18 by a pupil at her school. Marie was raped in primary school at the age of 7 by a 14-year-old student. Charlotte was repeatedly molested and physically abused as a child by her mother.

Years of suffering and silence

The physical and psychological consequences of sexual violence can last for years after the fact. Following her rape, Marie could no longer eat anything and had to be hospitalised. This trauma triggered self-injurious behaviour and anorexia, which she is still fighting against today, 13 years later.

Years later, Charlotte and Emma are still regularly prone to anxiety attacks and nightmares, and Emma consults a psychologist to get rid of her bad dreams.

This violence also has consequences on the future sexual life of the victims, as in the case of Charlotte, 21 years old, for whom “there is something blocking” more than ten years after the sexual assaults she suffered.

Shame, guilt, fear of reprisals: it is very difficult for victims to talk about the violence they have experienced, especially to their loved ones. Emma took a year and a half to talk to her ex-girlfriend and then to her mother about the rape she suffered when she was 15 years old. Marie told her mother about her rape nine years later, forced by her doctors, and told her father two years later on the advice of her psychologist.

“I felt responsible, I told myself that I liked the boy and that I had enjoyed it.

Pain but few complaints

Less than 10% of victims of sexual violence file a complaint, according to French government estimates. This is mainly due to the fear of not being heard and the slowness of justice. For Charlotte, a victim of incestuous touching, it is out of the question to lodge a complaint for fear of the “repercussions on the family’s honour” and on her future. Emma is reluctant to file a complaint for the second rape she suffered two years ago because the police had (illegally) refused to take her complaint for her first rape. Marie also hesitates to file a complaint, as a lawyer told her that her attacker, who was also a minor at the time of the events, would surely only have a psychological assessment and no punishment.

Victims are also confronted with what is known as the culture of rape, i.e. making the victim take responsibility for the crime. Emma experienced this phenomenon first hand when she confided in a psychologist who told her that it was her fault, that the aggressor was in love with her and that she had to question herself. These words still annoy the student today: “I would have liked to be told that it’s not my fault and that I have the right to be sad, I didn’t feel legitimate at all”.

The role of family and friends

The support and reaction of relatives to the revelation of the violence they have suffered plays an important role in the victims’ healing process. Some reactions can be harmful, such as telling the victim to stop thinking or talking about the event, that life goes on.

This is the reaction that Charlotte’s loved ones had, which she laments: “I would have liked more support and to be believed, not to dodge the subject, when I told my sister, I had the impression that it had gone in through one ear and out through the other”.

Conversely, certain reactions can help the victim: telling her that it is not her fault, listening and accepting the story of the event without passing judgment. For Marie, confiding in her best friend, a psychology student, has helped her a lot: “she reassured me about my traumatic amnesia, made me feel much less guilty, and gave me a lot of support”.

Education, one of the solutions

While there is no miracle solution to help the victims and prevent such violence, Marie, who had not been able to file a complaint, stresses the absolute necessity of training the police in violence against women.

For Emma, the system set up in her school, a reporting platform, is unsuitable and does not inspire confidence because it is run by a man, a teacher, without any training in sexual violence.

The student also mentioned the need for a psychologist to be more present in her school and for information sessions on consent for students at the beginning of the school year. For her, education is the solution: “often many people don’t even know what rape is”. The young woman recalls the poverty of the sex education courses she received at the college without any mention of consent or sexism. According to Emma, it is actually the taboo of sexuality that needs to be lifted in order to prevent and fight effectively against such violence.