From Inevitable to Preventable: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Sexual Violence

“What were you wearing?”…“Were you drunk?”…“Why did you end up in a room alone with him?”… “If you really didn’t want it, then why didn’t you fight harder?” I was asked questions like these by friends and some health care professionals after coming forward as a rape survivor in my first year of college. People assumed I was somehow at fault for my victimization, and often my feelings of shame, fear, and distrust were neglected during these interactions. I felt like my experience was not important, but instead irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the reaction I received to my rape is a common one for survivors of sexual violence both in the United States and across the world. In both conflict and non-conflict scenarios, women face a daily risk of assaults at home, in the workplace, on the street, and even in college dorms. In addition, victim-blaming and other negative responses from first responders is commonplace, leading to underreporting of these crimes.

In areas of armed conflict where rape is used as a weapon of war alongside bombs, bullets, and grenades, women face stigma and blame from their families. For example, many survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are rejected by their families and entire communities, leading to isolation and ultimately costing them their livelihoods. Despite such different contexts, in both the DRC and on American college campuses, women are socialized to protect themselves against the inevitable threat of sexual violence. Treating rape as a constant, inescapable risk limits choices and basic freedoms for women.

As I’ve learned during my internship at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) this summer, treating a survivor with dignity by helping them navigate the medical, legal, and judicial systems, is crucial to their ability to seek justice and to their healing process. Putting survivors at the center of the justice process ensures that they receive the help they need.

Both the DRC and the United States lack this survivor-centered approach to assisting victims of sexual violence. Such an approach primarily involves first responders in all sectors treating victims with respect when they initially report enduring sexual violence. In addition, a survivor-centered approach takes a more holistic response to prevention based on protecting individuals from the threat of sexual violence and working to ensure that individuals have the ability to lead productive lives with dignity. This approach also seeks to address the root causes of sexual violence by challenging rape myths and gender inequality.

PHR focuses on the unique threats to safety that women face as it crafts responses to address sexual violence in its work in the DRC and Kenya. PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones employs a cross-sectoral, survivor-centered approach to sexual violence prevention in conflict zones by facilitating trainings for a wide range of first responders who learn techniques and strategies to treat survivors with dignity and respect and to combat victim-blaming.

During these training workshops, medical, legal, and law enforcement participants are encouraged to think critically about sexual violence myths they may believe and to discuss the multiple obstacles they face in prosecuting such crimes. Through these fora, participants have an opportunity to learn from each other about how they can take action toward helping survivors heal. By training first responders on a survivor-centered response, PHR challenges victim-blaming and provides survivors with a sense of agency. A similar approach must be used for preventing sexual violence in the United States so that survivors are empowered and enabled to create their own path toward justice and healing.

Although there has been an increasing amount of attention on sexual violence on college campuses, as well as sexual violence in conflict, not enough focus has been on the survivor’s experience. The survivor should be the epicenter of the justice process for each case and the point of reference for creating a holistic response to sexual violence as a broader issue. We should learn from international work dedicated to implementing a survivor-centered approach in contexts of conflict to better tend to the needs of survivors and change the reactions of first responders in all contexts. We as a global community need to be adamant about combatting victim-blaming, so that survivors are treated with dignity and sexual violence is viewed not as inevitable, but as preventable.

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