The most important and simple thing you can do to help is listen and believe.
Survivors are often afraid of how other people will react to what has happened to them. They may fear not being believed, embarrassment, having their experiences minimised or trivialised or even fear rejection.
- Believe what they tell you. Survivors very rarely lie about sexual violence, but often fear people won’t believe them. If they sense disbelief they might never tell anyone again. Traumatic events can sometimes cause memory problems. If they ever seem to contradict themselves or add new facts, this doesn’t mean they’re making the whole thing up. It could be the brain processing fragments of memory.
- Give them your unconditional support. If, in your opinion, they are not taking the best care of themselves or making the ‘right’ decisions e.g. about reporting, do not judge them. Everyone reacts in their own way.
- A lot of survivors blame themselves for what was done to them. It’s normal after something traumatic to think ‘If only I had or hadn’t …’. Remind them that you don’t think that’s true but bear in mind that arguing with them probably won’t persuade them. Don’t be frustrated if they believe this for some time.
- If they feel guilty e.g. not putting up a fight, affirm the fact that they used their survival instincts to stay alive and that compliance is not consent. Most women do not put up a fight in order to survive and minimise further harm.
- Let them say what they need to say in their own time, in their own words.
- If they face difficult decisions, help them to make their own choices by exploring their options with them.
- Encourage them to do things for themselves; try to affirm their own capabilities and power by not doing things for them that they can do themselves.
- Treat all their feelings equally seriously.
- Dealing with the effects of sexual violence is ultimately something a survivor does for herself. Survivors are experts in their own healing, and so encourage and empower them to help themselves. You can do similarly.
Remember, you are not a miracle-worker. The best you can do is let them know that you care about them and will be there if they want to talk.