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Showing solidarity heals

Date Released: Mon, 25 August 2014 12:41 +0200

(Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR)

As the organiser of this year’s Silent Protest at Rhodes University, I read Dave Rankin’s letter to the editor (“Pointless protest”, DD August 7) with interest and empathy.

I share his frustration and sense of urgency that more needs to be done in very concrete terms to turn the tide on sexual violence in our country. The statistics translate into overwhelming numbers of individuals, families and communities carrying the impact of sexual violence.

And those impacts are significant. The experience of sexual violence can result in post-traumatic stress responses, as well as depression, lowered self-esteem and guilt or shame. It can diminish physical, psychological and economic well-being over an entire lifetime.

Meaningful change in the patterns of violence will require intention and commitment from all levels of society, including the highest office in the land. In the face of this, what can a two-day long protest offer?

This is where my response diverges from Rankin’s. He calls the Silent Protest “meaningless symbolism” and accuses those of us who organise and participate of being “intellectually bankrupt”.

I disagree, and this comes from the findings of my doctoral research in psychology and the experiences, narratives and responses evoked by our recent protest.
The Silent Protest’s primary message is one of solidarity with all survivors of sexual violence. On the day of the protest, the protest community has the opportunity to enact care and support for the many women and men who self-identify as survivors, wearing T-shirts that say “Rape Survivor” or “Survivor”.

Most often in families, communities and broader society, the response to rape survivors speaking out about the violation they have experienced is horrified apathy, disbelief or a not-so-subtle blaming: questioning where they were, what they were doing and wearing, who they were with, the choices they made and so on.

In our country, safe spaces for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories are rare. It is not surprising then that most either attempt to disclose and then fall silent, or never try in the first place. The Silent Protest creates a range of safe spaces (pre-protest workshops, Breaking the Silence event with an open mic, Debrief Cafe’s on the day of the protest and the following day as well as follow-up art therapy and discussion groups, informal discussions with friends and family that open up in response to the protest, one-on-one conversations and counselling), where survivors have the opportunity to begin to break their silence and share their stories, something that research in psychology tells us is important for healing/recovery.

The opportunity to recover one’s sense of worth and voice and tell your story to even one other person is an important step in having one’s experience of violation acknowledged.
However, such a narrative remains an individual’s account of a personal experience. Participation in the Silent Protest helps shift the narrative from a private event to a political issue.

When we hear story after story we begin to recognise that sexual violence is not simply a personal attack but a widely used means of wielding power and exercising control. Recognising this can help shift the shame and guilt that most survivors of sexual violence carry.
It also inspires many survivors to join in social action, get involved in activism themselves – another factor research has linked to improved recovery outcomes.

One aspect of my PhD research was to interview more than 30 survivors who participated in the Silent Protest in 2013. All but two described participating in the protest as being significantly beneficial in a variety of ways.

This is important as we think about providing therapeutic services to the vast numbers of women, men and children affected by sexual violence in our country. There will never be enough resources for individual counselling and support for all and we need to find alternative communal practices that offer benefit and healing processes.

My research suggests the Silent Protest offers one such model.

The stories of survivors participating in this protest have also offered us as researchers a much clearer sense of where our efforts and resources need to be focused if we are serious about preventing sexual violence.

When you put a human face to the statistics and listen to the experiences of survivors, it becomes clear that in most cases (more than 80%), the threat to women, as well as children and men, has not come from an evil stranger in a dark alley, but from people they know and trust. Perpetrators are fathers, mothers, uncles, brothers, trusted adults in authority, friends, babysitters, partners or colleagues rather than strangers.

This has been shown repeatedly in research around the world, but it somehow fails to shift our strongly held perceptions of where risk is located. Taking it seriously has huge implications for research and intervention efforts.

The emphasis needs to be less on getting engineers to design safer outside spaces and more on working to shift the ideas, beliefs and practices which support the sense of entitlement that allows perpetrators to exploit and violate the vulnerable, in spaces where they believe they are safe.

We also cannot ignore the impact of the Silent Protest on those who participate in solidarity with survivors. For these protestors, what they experienced is a key aspect of the education they receive at Rhodes University.

While it may be argued that “nobody in South Africa needs to be told about the rape problem”, for those not directly affected, rape remains an abstract notion rather than a reality. It is meaningful for those taking part, and for the wider campus community, to see classmates, researchers and lecturers wearing rape survivor and survivor T-shirts and to hear some of their stories.

Most protestors have their mouths taped shut with black gaffer tape, as a symbol of the impact of the silences around sexual violence. They spend nearly 10 hours in this silence, reflecting on what they are seeing, hearing and experiencing. At the same time, they are not alone. They are aware that they are part of a broader protest community.

Michael White, pioneer of a narrative approach to therapy, suggests that when people stand together in solidarity, however briefly and partially, it offers them an opportunity to reflect on their own “taken-for-granted” ways of thinking and behaving and to recognise how they themselves, often unknowingly, contribute to oppressive ideas and practices.

The protest therefore, offers the possibility of a personal journey into greater awareness for each participant. But this is by no means an easy journey. This protest is not a “self-satisfying, feel-good exercise”.

In the Grahamstown Cathedral at the culmination of the protest on Friday night, about 700 people gathered to bear witness to the stories of survivors. These are agonising, traumatic stories told with brutal honesty and raw emotion.

The care and support for those who share is palpable but it comes at a cost. No-one walks away unmoved. Each witness bears the impact of the trauma for some time after, also knowing that their presence contributed somehow to a safe and healing space for survivors.

The Silent Protest issues a sustained and consistent call to action to each person who participates in or encounters the protest. Over the eight years that it has taken place, thousands of students have participated, going on to apply the awareness gained to their research and careers.

Does the Silent Protest put a stop to sexual violence? No, it does not. Is it a meaningful response to sexual violence, with real impacts and effects? Yes, I believe it is. And I invite Rankin and all readers to join us next year in solidarity.

Kim Barker was the co-ordinator of the Rhodes Silent Protest 2014

Source:Daily Disptach August 15 2014