As of the launching of this project on 19 August 2015, it has been just over 6 months since I was drugged and raped by an employee of a UNICEF contractor while working as a humanitarian in Bentiu, South Sudan. It has been roughly 4 months since I had my former Country Director send a mass email to warn my colleagues about the drugging problem within the humanitarian community. It has been almost one month since I went public with what happened to me last February.
The details of my experience are widely available. I could have used this page to talk to you about how I believe my glass of red wine was drugged that night. I could tell you about how I woke up in the middle of the night, naked and alone, violently ill and scared, wondering how I had gotten to my bed and why I felt like I’d had sex. I could tell you about how I reacted – physically, mentally and emotionally – to the rising horror and realization of what had occurred during the night I do not and likely never will remember. I could tell you that I still wake up in the middle of the night having nightmares about darkness and hands. I could tell you how I worry about forming relationships in the future or how I have changed my behaviour in social settings to match my new perception of reality.
I could have done that; perhaps someday I will use this page for that purpose. Today however, today I want to talk to you about bravery, and that fact that it is considered to be brave to talk about being victimised by a crime like sexual violence.
I don’t consider myself to be brave. In fact, I abhor the word, at least as it applies to myself and what I have done so far.
Admitting to being the victim of a crime is not brave. Or, rather, it should not be. It should not be extraordinary to be able to say out loud, write or express in some way the following words: “I am a rape survivor.” It should not be amazing that someone is able to discuss having been a victim of a violent crime because that is all that sexual violence, rape, is; it is a violent crime.
Yes, sexual violence is, in many ways, a more intimate violation than other violent crimes, like being mugged at gunpoint, for example, despite the fact that these crimes often carry similar criminal sentences in many countries. The key difference lies in the societal reaction to the crime.
If you were mugged at gunpoint few people would judge you for talking about your experience. It would become part of who you are, and while you may change how you behave afterwards, perhaps by avoiding the street you were walking down when you were mugged, chances are that you would not feel ashamed to tell people that you’ve been violated in this way.
Sexual violence on the other hand…well talking about this crime can be a minefield. You are made to feel, in a number of micro and macro ways, that you somehow deserved what happened to you. From my own experience, I can freely admit, in spite of my extensive knowledge and work experience in the area of gender based violence, that I have spent far too many dark hours trying to figure out how I could have stopped this from happening to myself. Some have suggested that I shouldn’t have been drinking that night, was that the cause of my rape? Did I encourage my rapist by saying hello to him in the cafeteria a few days beforehand? Did I behave in a way that brought this upon myself?
I’m an intelligent person. I know that the answers to all of these questions is unequivocally no. That has not stopped me from bouts of shame, nights of tears or fear. I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing these feelings either.
Part of the reason why I came forward, within my former organisation, to my family and friends, to the world, was to do my tiny part in breaking the stigma of sexual violence within the community that I know and had my experience with – the humanitarian world. I am far from the only humanitarian to have experienced sexual violence, in the wide sphere of what the crime encompasses. I am not alone, and I needed to tell the people that I was working alongside that they were not alone either.
Talking about the fact that this is a problem in the humanitarian community is the first way to begin breaking down the barriers that prevent us from talking about our experiences. It is the first way to begin to break the stigma. It is also the first way to start making changes in the humanitarian community to ensure that support is available to those who experience sexual violence and their perpetrators do not escape with impunity.
This is just the first step in what will likely be a long journey to make sure that UN agencies, INGOs and NGOs have responsive policies and procedures in place to prevent acts of sexual violence and take appropriate action when it does. I do not expect anything to happen overnight. It will happen though, and we cannot give up until the organisations that we work for take our experiences and voices seriously.
Change will occur, work environments will adapt, perpetrators will be punished. We will no longer need to be afraid. It will no longer be considered brave for a humanitarian to stand up and say they were sexually harassed, abused or assaulted in the course of their work.
This is my story and that is the day I’m working towards. That is why I started this website and survey. That is why I ask you to speak out with me.