How to respond and support survivors of sexual assault

Sexual violence including rape is widespread and systemic worldwide. Global estimates published by the World Health Organisation indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. 

There are no countries where people live free from its threat, and while it disproportionately affects women and girls, no gender or group of people are exempt from its destructive effects.  

With this in mind, it is more than likely that activists and campaigners advocating for consent may be survivors themselves and/or will engage and interact with survivors and victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence both online and offline.  

Activists should not encourage individuals to disclose personal experiences, but some survivors may choose to do so. Others won’t say anything but can feel some distress after reading or seeing assets and materials about rape or participating in some of the activities.   

Effects of rape/ Common responses

Everyone reacts differently to a sexual assault and there is no right or wrong way to feel. Common symptoms are nightmares, flashbacks, change in the mood, or lack of concentration. Sometimes people experience fear, feelings of guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame or stigma, often linked to prevailing gender norms about sexual violence survivors, perpetrators, and the roles of men and women.

Some have no obvious external reaction. 

What can we do to support?     

  1. Have safeguarding and referral contacts in place and available to those who may need help even if they do not ask for them (for example in the break/relaxation room). This can include free phone helplines of national or regional organizations, rape crisis centres, or women’s centres in your country. You can add helpline and online resources for specialised support groups (LGBTI, migrant organizations, people of colour, minority groups, etc.)
  2.  Add these numbers and contacts to your online campaigns or have them handy in workshops or other off-line activities 
  3. If you are planning to use contact numbers and information of specific smaller organizations to act as referrals, consider contacting them first so they are aware
  4.  When survivors are willing to or feel the need to share personal experiences, consider the following to support them: 
    • Listen to what they have to say and try to not interrupt (even if you have questions)
    • Believe them!
    • Let them know that you understand that it was not their fault
    • Give information about referrals and organizations that can help but RESPECT their decision about what to do
    • Do not judge or ask why they did not fight back or ask for help immediately
    • Respect their confidentiality (e.g. keep their personal details, such as names and locations to yourself and if you feel the need to debrief with someone or discuss survivors’ stories outside of the setting, make sure that you don’t disclose anything that could identify them without their consent. If you’re taking notes, keep them in a secure place so that their identity is protected)
    • Avoid telling them what to do to feel better. Let survivors stay in control of the situation
    • If the person is telling you that they are at risk from others or of self-inflicted harm, ask whether they feel comfortable contacting a rape helpline or the emergency services.

You can find additional resources for survivors and supporters in the toolkit.

The final section of the toolkit is dedicated to resources for further reading or watching: educational resources, training resources, podcasts and TV. There are so many interesting and inspiring ways to explore the issue of consent.

If you’re ready to start your own conversations around consent, why not share this blog series as a first step? Keep us updated on Instagram @LetsTalkAboutYes and Twitter #LetsTalkAboutYes