Sexual assault is an act of extreme cruelty and injustice that causes insurmountable levels of trauma on the inflicted individual.
When a forcible act of abusing someone sexually takes place, the experience is one that even the sufferer fails to understand or give words to. The trauma leaves the one abused feeling used, deceived, and damaged. The person then begins to see the world with a tinted lens, which casts a shadow of darkness over everything.
A reported 94 percent of such women experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) within two weeks after the assault. Among them, 30 percent continue to experience PTSD symptoms nine months after the incident. This disorder is characterised by intrusive, distressing flashbacks from the event, emotional numbness, social avoidance, and persistent negative beliefs about one’s self or others. It is most often accompanied by depression, or anxiety, that further cause distress to their mental, emotional, and physical state.
Sexual assault and rape are attached with a stigma all over the world. A stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person’ and one regarding rape and sexual assault makes the situation worse for someone who is already suffering. Removing this stigma is a step towards improvement, creating a healthier environment for the sufferer to heal in, and easing his or her hardships.
The reaction of society in this regard is important, but the media plays a vital role in building the narrative for issues and events that happen in the country. It has the power to shape how a rape incident is perceived, through the words used in its stories and has the responsibility to use this power correctly.
When a rape case is reported, the news usually add a headline with the words ‘Rape Victim’ along with images depicting helplessness, vulnerability, and hopelessness. Another image often used is that of masculine hands covering the female’s mouth to hush her up, depicting silence and weakness.
A point to ponder is, what message these images give across? The issue becomes framed in a way that the victims feel further stigmatised from society, when all they need is healing. It is common for their images to go viral on social media, which informs the public and also gains sympathy and support for them. However, the victims of abuse become the core focus of the issue, rather than the perpetrator or abuser who should have been held under the spotlight for the world to see.
Calling someone a victim not only reinforces his or her victimhood but also draws complete attention towards the sufferer, garnering increased interest about the personal details of the victim. The victim becomes the subject of the entire case.
Dating back to the 1970s, books like “I Never Told Anyone” and “The Courage to Heal” collecting personal narratives of women who had experienced incest and child sexual abuse, were the first to pointedly use the word ‘survivor’, replacing ‘victim’ in an attempt to emphasise women’s resourcefulness rather than their helplessness and the decisions they had made that allowed them to stay safe and sane.
Today, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, a discussion has stirred again, in which women are uniting, to be called ‘survivors’, not ‘victims’ of abuse.
When the media calls a person who is raped a ‘victim’, it correctly defines him or her “as a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action” as defined by Oxford. But for the person who was subjected to such a heinous crime, the word ‘victim’ has more connotations. The word has a psychological impact on the person who was abused and traumatised.
While it is important to acknowledge the suffering and pain of the ‘victim’ and using the term does that, it also further reinforces the victim as ‘hopeless’ in society’s eyes and further reinforces all the stigmas attached to rape, making them feel more isolated.
The term ‘victim’ limits the scope for improvement or healing, because using this term is like taking a pen and writing the end of their story, with nothing left to hope for.
For these reasons, calling the individual a ‘rape survivor’ or a ‘sexual abuse survivor’ gives more hope to the wronged. The ‘victim’ is now a ‘survivor’- erasing the society’s stigma towards the future, offering hope and encouragement.
In an article ‘Survivor vs Victim: The Power of Language’, Jessica Tappana, a therapist and co-founder of counselling website in Columbia writes, “When I use the term survivor, I feel that it leaves the door more open for possibility. Even if my client isn’t thriving right this moment, I still encourage them to claim the title of ‘survivor’ as we begin to walk down the path of healing.”
In Pakistan, the particular stigma attached to rape is regarding the shame it brings to the individual and her family. It is something to hide from the world, to live with and carry this shame for the rest of their life. Calling the victim a survivor would turn the ‘shameful’ incident into an event that this person ‘survived’ implying that they still have prospects for a better future.
Sexually abused women are not irrevocably damaged in soul and body, and if they do not acknowledge this, they are in denial of their strength. We can equip them with that courage by not letting their abuse define them.
We can start by calling them ‘survivors’, undefeated and brave; so that instead of bowing down their heads in shame, they can keep their chin up, look towards a positive future, and proudly say, “I am a survivor.”