Seven tips for supporting victims and survivors at the silent protest

Words by Xiletelo Mabasa

Throughout the course of today, many brave people have come together to protest rape culture in South Africa. For some, this will be their first Silent Protest while others have participated in previous years. Regardless, there are surely many students who may be wondering how to appropriately show support to their friends and schoolmates who are victims or survivors.  If you have joined the Silent Protest in solidarity with the survivors, then here are seven tips you might want to consider beforehand.

  1. Don’t pressure anyone to tell you their story

The Silent Protest can undoubtedly become very emotional on many levels and at many times. Survivors will share their harrowing tales of experiencing sexual abuse at the Die-in with the support of the friends and fellow survivors. If you choose to be there in support of a friend who fell victim to the crime, that is commendable. But if you notice that your friend decides not to share their story, do not insist that they participate as this kind of pressure will likely only add to their negative experience.

Remind yourself that even though the other demonstrators are a community of survivors, some of them are still technically strangers. Your friend might not feel comfortable talking about the attack to such a large group of unfamiliar people. Most importantly, survivors do not owe anyone their story.

A major aspect of the Silent Protest’s experience is that people give their CONSENT to participate in any of the available activities. Allow your friend to be in charge of their experience of the day’s proceedings.

  1. Ask for permission before taking a picture

Being courteous and acknowledging the issue of consent during the protest is crucial when it comes to photography. It’s okay to take a picture of the crowd because you’re not focusing on anyone in particular. But it is important to ask permission before photographing an individual or small group of individuals. Not doing so is intrusive, rude and bad social etiquette. Survivors might be comfortable declaring themselves as such at the protest because it’s a safe space where there is love and support. But not everyone is comfortable having their picture on social media where they might be vulnerable to online attacks.

  1. Recognise the diversity of survivors

Anyone can be subjected to sexual violence; no one is immune. You might be expecting to see a lot of female survivors at the protest and you are very likely to be right in this expectation. Womxn are disproportionately affected by rape and gender-based violence, a fact as true in South Africa as it is around the world. But not all victims are womxn. Many victims are men or gender non-conforming bodies, all of whom have been victimised by other men and even by womxn. The attacks could have happened when they were children or now that they are adults.

You might also be interested to know that sexual assault is an umbrella term that refers to all sexual offences including sexual harassment, molestation and rape. This diversity goes beyond race, class, sex and gender. Every survivor is at a different stage of their own personal healing process. There is no pre-determined timeline for healing and different people deal with the same thing differently.

Hollywood, Actress Gabrielle Union was raped at gunpoint at the age of 19. When accepting the 2013 Black Womxn in Hollywood Fierce and Fearless Award she told the audience, “I was a victim masquerading as a survivor.” Showing that one can experience a lot of inner conflict and pain when they experience something as traumatic as rape.

  1. Give hugs (with permission)

This point is more applicable if the assault happened very recently and the victim is still trying to process it. As previously stated, the idea of consent and bodily integrity are a big part of the silent protest. If you would like to give your friend a warm hug when they open up to you, make sure you ask them first. This is not to say that they are fragile and must be handled like too delicately because not everyone wants to be perceived that way.

But, “For those who have been sexually violated, touch can be re-traumatizing,” the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) said in an article. The NSVRC also suggests that you respect your friends decision if they say no because this will give them a sense of agency and power. So do not force anyone with unsolicited displays of affection.

  1. Wage war on internet trolls

There are a lot of ignorant people on the internet and rape apologists are plentiful. You might encounter some of these people while scrolling through Twitter throughout the day. They might sexualise female protesters for deciding to demonstrate while topless or make harmful victim-blaming comments. In article for bustle.com, JR Thorpe speaks of how you shouldn’t be afraid to respond to these hateful comments and educate these people in the name of your friend and all survivors. Be present and supportive for your friend on and offline. Sustain this practice and encourage others to engage on social media. If you have not already, join a society on campus that tackles rape culture and find out how you can contribute to solutions long after the 3rd of August.

  1. Be involved

There are many activities and acts of solidarity to participate in. Have your mouth taped, wear your supporter t-shirt with pride and listen and learn from the strength of survivors and victims at the protest.

  1. Get educated on the issue of rape culture

There are seminars and workshops happening from Monday to Thursday next week and these can offer you a chance to learn more about the reality of rape culture in South Africa. You can learn more about the complexities of it and ideas on how to end it. Take a look at the programme, keep an open mind and invite people to come with you.