Amidst the laughter and clinking glasses, there’s a silent danger that many women face – an increased vulnerability to rape. While the champagne flows and the music plays, it is essential to recognise that alcohol isn’t the culprit but can be a perilous accomplice. Alcohol should be seen as a risk factor for, not a cause of, unwanted sexual advances and other forms of sexual assault.
Unfortunately, rape is a silent killer:
It is very hard for women to prove it. It usually takes place out of public view, where only the rapist and victim know the ugly truth.
And women who report rape are often not believed or accused of revenge for being rejected. So most women die inside quietly on their own – some for years.
In our last blog, we wrote about how to identify an abusive relationship and the symptoms of someone in violent home. This blog aims to equip us as faith leaders to identify a rape survivor (of any gender, though we will use She for a survivor and He for a perpetrator, since most cases are covered by this). We will also offer some suggestions for WHAT to do and WHAT NOT to do when faced with a traumatised rape survivor – to help them face their trauma and begin to heal.
How do you recognise it when a person is traumatised by rape?
Rape, a deeply traumatic experience, casts a tumultuous storm of emotions.
In the short term, survivors navigate fear, nightmares, sleep disturbances, anger, embarrassment, shame, and guilt. The aftermath varies from talkativeness and trembling to shock and emotionless smiles.
Long-term effects echo in the haunting corridors of post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks, upsetting thoughts, avoidance, sleep difficulties, irritability, concentration problems, depression, withdrawal, and even suicidal feelings.
If a person you have known for a while, especially a woman or a child, suddenly changes—from being a cheerful, outgoing person to becoming sullen, moody, or withdrawn—take note!
This is often the first sign that they have been traumatised and are trying to hide an unbearable secret. Or they may have been sensible and well-balanced and suddenly become irritable, even violent—or they go out all the time and never stop for a moment. They may frequently cry, have nightmares, or show signs of irrational fears of going out or of being with other people.
These signs are not normal, even for teenagers, especially if they come on very suddenly and an approachable person suddenly pushes everyone away.
What can the faith sector do?
DO NOT LOOK AWAY!
Try to create safety in your relationship; just love them and accept them, and see if they might feel safe enough to open up.
But DO NOT PUSH THEM!
No one talks about a traumatic event unless they feel ready and unless they feel safe. Be careful how you conduct yourself. Be there for them, be gentle, be kind, tell them you notice that all is not well
with them, but it’s OK if they do not want to talk. Tell them you are there for them if and when they are ready to talk, or you can take them to someone else if they prefer not to talk to you but to a professional, a friend or a relative.
Most important for us as faith leaders is to realise, as the Chair of the Phephisa Survivors Network has said:
“When you are raped, your spirit is attacked. That is why we need our faith leaders.”
When they are ready, survivors often seek solace within the walls of their faith institutions, looking to faith leaders as beacons of support.
Your role is nothing short of critical.
As custodians of compassion, it’s paramount to respond with a deep understanding that avoids trivialising their experiences, passing judgement, or excusing the perpetrators.
Language to avoid:
“What were you wearing?”
“Did you maybe give him an idea that you wanted it?”
“Why were you out so late?”
“Why do you go to places like that, you know they are dangerous?”
“He is such a nice guy (or such a good youth leader, or wise preacher, etc), that’s impossible!”
It is not just a duty; it’s a sacred obligation to carve out a sanctuary where their pain is acknowledged and understood. Your task is clear: LISTEN, LISTEN AND LISTEN SOME MORE, for in your attentive ears lies the power to help them reclaim their strength and heal.
Most important is to offer emotional support:
- LISTEN and BELIEVE them.
- DO NOT let the survivor believe it is their fault.
- Be gentle and DO NOT overwhelm them with information.
- DO NOT ask for the gory details – let them share as much as they feel ready to share.
- DO support whatever action they took during the rape – the most important thing is that they have survived.
- If possible, DO stay with the survivor if they choose to report the rape and have a medical examination. The questions and examinations can feel like secondary trauma, so it is vital that someone is there who cares for them and will protect them if needed.
But practical help is also critical to get the survivor through the ordeal
Ascertain if the survivor wants to report the incident. Lay out the options but do not push
the survivor to report the case if they are reticent to do so.
If the rape has just taken place, or within the last 72 hours – ask them NOT TO WASH and to
give you their clothes to put into a paper bag – DO NOT put their underwear or clothes into a
plastic bag – the hormones in the plastic can spoil the evidence if they want to press a
o They may not say straight away if they want to press charges – collect the evidence
anyway! They have 72 hours in which the DNA is still active.
If there is a TCC (Thuthuzela Care Centre) nearby – accompany the survivor there – it is a
one-stop shop and all the below services will be provided;
If there is no TCC nearby:
o If the survivor wants to lay a charge – accompany the survivor to the police to lay a
When you get there, ask if they have a survivor-friendly room and a trained
officer to deal with sexual violence cases. If the attending officer tells you to
go to another police station – ask them to call the referred SAPS station to
ask if they have the relevant support there. If not, ensure that the survivor is
taken to a private office and is not questioned in the public Charge Office –
accompany her if she is happy with that,
Accompany the survivor to the district surgeon for a medical examination, and that the
doctor tells her every step that will be taken beforehand and asks her permission, to avoid
her being further traumatised. (She will have had things done to her by force before, and if
she is not given her power back to agree for steps to be taken, she can easily be re-
traumatised. This is a form of (often unintentional) secondary abuse.
The threat of HIV is very real.
o Help the survivor access post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) within 72 hours of the
o If the survivor is already positive, make sure they get a medical appointment to
assess treatment options.
o As a person of faith, DO NOT link HIV with sin and spiritual punishment, as this can
play into the tendency for rape survivors to blame themselves anyway.
Organise for the survivor to see a trauma counsellor as soon as possible.
Your Responsibility as a Faith Leader
The way faith leaders respond to survivors of rape holds the transformative power to chart the
course of their healing and recovery. Beyond that, it has the potential to sculpt the very trajectory of
their faith development.
We encourage you to put great effort into making your faith institution a safe space for survivors
and further in making your faith leaders themselves safe spaces.
You are holding the recovery of survivors in your hands. They are the most vulnerable they have
ever been. They may already feel abandoned by God – it is vital that you offer the safety they need
to face the trauma they have experienced.
It is your responsibility to reassure them of God’s loving, non-judgemental presence and
In that moment – when they are faced with death in their life –
ensure that your gentle presence will enable them to CHOOSE LIFE
(to paraphrase Deuteronomy 30:19-20).