This week marks the beginning of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, an internationally-recognised campaign that calls for the eradication of gender-based violence (GBV).
The campaign begins on Nov. 25 — on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women — and ends on Dec. 10, on Human Rights Day.
Violence against women and girls is a global crisis that needs to come to an end.
According to UN Women and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), an estimated 1 in 3 women will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner violence in their lifetime. These figures do not include sexual harassment.
As the fight against GBV continues with violence against women and girls yet to be eradicated, it is important for everyone to know how to support someone if they choose to confide in you about an experience of gender or sexual violence.
1. Start by believing
Acknowledging that you believe a survivor is important for establishing trust.
Globally, there is a societal culture of disbelief and victim-blaming when it comes to sexual assault and this plays a part in not properly addressing the international crisis.
According to a report by Vox, part of this culture comes from historically not recognizing rape as a crime against a woman, but rather as a property crime against a woman’s husband or father. Now, this manifests in survivors being asked what they were wearing or doing when they were attacked; while awareness campaigns will more often target potential victims, rather than would-be attackers.
Society also brings us up to believe that women are known to lie. In her extensive research on the subject, writer Soraya Chomaly has reported on the many ways in which women are depicted as untrustworthy in TV, music, politics, and even religion.
Society needs to move from a culture of blaming, to a culture of believing. Stating that you believe a survivor validates their experience and reminds them that whatever feelings they may have are justified under the circumstances.
2. Listen without judgement
Most of us are not trained to advise a survivor on what they should do, and we may not have the tools essential to helping them. One thing we do have, however, is an ear to listen to what they have to say.
The action may seem small, but listening without judgement or questioning goes a long way. It takes a lot of courage for someone to open up about an assault, and listening to what they have to say without interrupting them helps to validate their experience.
Erinn Robinson, the press secretary for RAINN, a leading anti-sexual assault organization based in the United States, told INSIDER that listening is the often the best way to support a survivor.
She explained that asking questions can be interpreted as casting doubt on the survivor’s story. She stressed that it's important to give the survivor control of the conversation. How much or how little they share with you is up to the survivor, your role is to listen with intent.
"Disclosure doesn't have to mean sharing every detail — it's the survivor's decision to tell as little or as much as they're comfortable with,” she said.
3. How you can respond
The Women Inspired Solutions for Empowerment (WISE) Collective, based in South Africa, suggests that if you do feel the need to say something, but do not have the words, remind the survivor that you believe them.
These are a few phrases that the WISE Collective suggests in responding:
"I believe you."
"I am here for you."
"You can tell me as much or as little as you want."
"It’s not your fault."
"I’m glad you told me.”
4. Ask what practical support you could provide
This could mean providing company to report the crime at a police station, assistance in finding a professional to speak to, or being present for medical appointments. Offer practical help without adding the pressure for them to take action.
It is important to note that survivors may not be ready to take any sort of action after an assault. However letting them know that, should they need it, you are willing to stay by their side and assist them along the way is an indication of support.
5. Stay up to date on laws and reporting procedures in your country
Every country has different procedures when it comes to reporting and filing cases of sexual assault and violence. Read up on your country or region’s laws and procedures as a preemptive tactic to know how to respond if something happens to you or someone you know.
6. Check in on the survivor after they share their experience with you
Robinson further highlights that it’s a good idea to “check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.”
You may not know what kind of physical and emotional support they may need after the experience and, while every survivor’s case is different, letting them know that you’re still here and willing to support them reminds them that they have someone to turn to.
Robinson added that showing up is sometimes enough to signal your solidarity with a survivor.
All people deserve to live in peace and safety and without the fear of violence. Join the movement to bring an end to gender-based violence and ultimately achieve gender equality by taking action here.
If you or someone you know has experienced gender-based or sexual violence, you can find international resources for support here.