The movement that shook the world showed the shocking prevalence of sexual violence. #MeToo united survivors in solidarity and gave those who can speak up about their experiences a chance to share their stories. For most, it was a cathartic way of sharing their trauma to let other survivors know they’re not alone.
Sexual violence is shrouded in silence and the magnitude of women speaking up shows we don’t have to be defined by abuse – we can salvage growth and healing from it.
It’s not just women who experience violence against our bodies – it can be anybody, anywhere, and at any time.
Activist, sexual rights advocate and creative Amber Amour famously documented herself moments after her rape in Cape Town. By sharing her story, refusing to stay silent and using her trauma as a weapon against the systemic sexual abuse and violence on women’s bodies, Amour founded the #StopRapeEducate initiative that has reached and empowered thousands of survivors.
Today she’s jet-setting around the world, educating, affirming and supporting sexual-abuse survivors.
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The #StopRapeEducate World Tour began in London, and from there I went to York (northern England), Madrid (Spain), and Johannesburg & Cape Town in South Africa 💪🏽 Today as we celebrate the 3rd anniversary of @creatingconsentculture, I am so grateful to announce that I am going to Argentina for the Buenos Aires Slut Walk @lmdlp.bsas, where I will be returning for a second year to educate thousands about consent!! 😀😀😀 Click the link in my bio to donate and click the hashtag #BuenosAiresSlutWalk to see all the work we did last year! Donate any amount you can at ambertheactivist.com and join me in Buenos Aires on November 5th at Plaza de Mayo. Thank you for creating a culture of consent! ❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️❤️❤️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️❤️️ #chalkart #feminism #womanism #humanrights #sexualassault #yesallwomen #itsonus #rapeculture #consentculture #sexeducation #sexpositive #amberamour #london #joburg #johannesburg #capetown #CreatingConsentCulture
Personality, media mogul and SA’s woman of the moment Bonang Matheba seems like she has it all. But she is also a survivor of domestic violence. In a highly publicised relationship with DJ Euphonik, Bonang shared her story of abuse where she felt worthless and trapped. ‘I have been in a relationship where the other person was completely controlling. You crumble and feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, the bottom of yourself,’ she told Kaya FM. Bonang described the feelings of many survivors who are abused at the hands of their partners: ‘[Abuse] is disguised as love but love is supposed to be free. You only realise [the extent of the control] when you are out of the relationship.’
Now, she’s the author of a best-selling autobiography and is flourishing all over the world as a brand ambassador, influencer and businesswomen.
Kelly Khumalo, Amanda du Pont and countless other South African women, famous or not, can say #MeToo. But like Bonang and Amber, how do we get from the point of feeling broken and controlled by our experiences with trauma, to a point of healing?
‘Rape will not define who I am. It has made me stronger.’
‘I decided that the rape of my body was not going to kill my hopeful, adventurous and determined spirit. Yes, it took time to heal. Yes, it was hard. Yes, there were days I didn’t think I would recover. But I also know that if I had allowed them to enter my mind, I would be haunted forever,’ says Lily Reed.
Lily Reed is a writer, founder of the Lily Reed Foundation, sexual-health advocate and survivor of sexual assault. She was brutally gang-raped by 12 men in Malawi in a home invasion. Her story – from being sexually assaulted in front of her daughter to being the author of a critically acclaimed book on moving forward from sexual violence called The Dark Seed –shows us that being affected by sexual assault is not the end.
How trauma works:
Rape Crisis Cape Town explains that after assault, there are intense emotions that stem from trauma. ‘People who have been raped have to overcome a very intense experience of extreme disrespect of their wishes, their feelings and their bodies. The experience is so intense that sometimes survivors even begin to feel as though their wishes, feelings and bodies aren’t really important. The truth is that they still are and always should be.’
Lily explains the effect that trauma has on your mind, long after your assault: ‘Any sort of trauma has a negative effect on the brain and its chemical reactions and can send the brain into a fight-or-flight response.’
‘With trauma, this chemical response gets stuck on high alert and results in physical and mental responses that are no longer valid in the “now” safe environment. The symptoms can be fear, anxiety, avoidance of people and places, twitches, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, memory loss etc,’ says Lily.
Triggers are a big part of life after trauma, and Lily says your mind and body are still in ‘flight mode’. ‘The symptoms are also triggered by seemingly unrelated objects, smells, people or places. Your mind and body are reacting as if you are still in danger, still fighting, still running, crying, screaming, raising your heartbeat, making you sweat, numbing you or making you agitated,’ says Lily.
How to begin again
‘Sexual trauma of any kind, whether it involved penetration or not, takes a bit of your spirit, as if it steals something from you. That’s why it’s very important to get counselling to start to heal and regain all the places that have been stolen from you,’ says founder of TEARS Foundation – the organisation offering support to survivors of abuse – Mara Glennie.
Lily explains the importance of talking about what’s happened to you, and some of the dangers of living in silence.
‘Talking about the trauma and what happened with a trained professional will help you to identify which symptoms are disrupting your daily routines and preventing you from living a full, happy and healthy life again,’ she says. ‘Sometimes victims of trauma are so distressed by these symptoms that they turn to drugs, alcohol or other substances to make themselves feel better. These substances are addictive and make symptoms worse in the long-term as they are habit-forming.’
Trauma therapists use a number of different techniques to help clients control and manage their symptoms. This does not necessarily mean that they have to talk in-depth about their experience, but the client does need to be open to identifying negative outcomes, changes in lifestyle, brain function and activities.
‘Intrusive thoughts, unwanted flashbacks and physical reactions like loss of appetite, depression, substance abuse or fatigue are all symptoms that trauma therapists can help with. They can also help survivors open up to family and friends, employers and the court systems in a safe and positive way.’
How talking about it helps
Lily doesn’t know how she would have rebuilt her life if she didn’t speak about her trauma and receive counselling. ‘Trauma counselling was an essential part of my healing process. I first spoke to a psychologist from Fountain Of Life in Malawi. She helped to find us a safe place to live within days after the attack. She helped me to focus on the bigger picture and motivated me to get well for the sake of myself and the children. She arranged for medical treatment and took me to check-ups. She was also there for me during the court case.
‘When I arrived back in South Africa I went for counselling at the Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture where I received intensive counselling and information, which helped me to deal with immediate decisions. My daughter saw a child psychologist to help her understand what had happened and to deal with any trauma symptoms. I have connected with an alternative therapist who helps me to deal with aspects of my life that seem to get out of control at times, caused by anxiety and misplaced fear.’
‘You are a Warrior’
Lily also used her experience as a form of activism to help others – and that can be very empowering.
‘I have now opened a charity called The Lily Reed Foundation, which offers FREE counselling and support services to victims of trauma and rape. To progress from the mind-set of a victim to a survivor is a big step. The next step is to see that you are a warrior.
‘My whole process culminated in a book published this year. I focused on healing from the very moment the rape began. I knew that to ensure that my mind was not permanently damaged, I needed to think very positively, forgive, and have gratitude and humility throughout the process.
‘What I have found is that sharing my story encourages others to be brave and share their stories too, whether it has prompted them to speak to me, a friend or family members. I have been promoting the Path of the Warrior – which is a conscious decision to move on from being a survivor, past just getting back to a normal life, and through to looking back at what happened, what you have accomplished and realising that you are a warrior!’
Tips for self-care after abuse
Everyone is different. You should always seek the help of professionals who support survivors of abuse to find out what options work best for you. After the trauma of abuse, you may not feel in control of your body or mind.
We asked Lily what her self-care steps are as a survivor and she gave us five tips for looking after yourself in the ways you deserve.
1 Looking after your body
- Make sure to get all the right treatment as soon as possible after abuse: HIV test, a morning-after pill, Pap smear, and STI prevention treatments within the first 72 hours.
- Remember to take supplements in the form of iron transfusions and vitamins, and antidepressants and/or anti-anxiety medication if you need it.
- Do regular exercise and eat properly.
- Watch your body for any signs of illness, fatigue or stress and visit the doctor regularly for check-ups.
2 Control your environment
- Try to normalise your environment ASAP by returning to your regular routine
- Switch things up by changing the decor in your house, whether that’s a colour change or sticking up positive affirmations and motivational quotes.
- Try to avoid any music or watching any violent media that could be triggering: opt for cartoons, comedies and classical music.
3 Find your resources
- Read up as much as you can about rape, recovery, healing techniques and things to expect afterwards
- Look up all the websites and directories of support services in your area
4 Be kind to your mind
- Speak to yourself very kindly: always tell yourself that everything is going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
- Try be prepared for totally normal symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, fear and a loss of libido.
- Write! Try starting a blog to express everything you’re going through
- Keep a diary to track your progress and note anything that seems weird or important.
- Counselling, counselling, counselling
5 It just takes time – and that’s okay!
Lily says she learnt that time is the biggest healer. ‘With enough time and the right support, information and access to services, healing is possible. If you just take a few days at a time and focus on what is important (your body and your mind) then time will do the rest.’
It’s NEVER your fault
Healing is about counselling and self-care, but it’s also realising that rape and sexual assault are never your fault.
Lily debunks myths and misconceptions that perpetuate rape culture and leave survivors feeling ashamed, guilty and vilified for what’s happened to them.
1 Rape is about sex.
‘Rape is not a sexual act, it is an act of violence against another person.’
2 A victim of rape should feel ashamed.
‘The victim should feel no shame. The shame should land squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.’
3 Rape should be kept a secret.
‘The secret is kept by the victim because of the fear of blame and ridicule by others. Those who mistreat victims of abuse, rape and violence are misguided, misinformed and end up re-traumatising the victim. The abuser is the one who has a shameful secret to keep. The victim is threatened by society to keep the secret when it is not his/her secret to keep. By being unsupportive of a victim you are perpetuating a crime.’
4 If the police or doctors don’t help me, I can’t do anything about it.
‘Medical and security professionals have a duty to treat victims of crime, abuse and violence. Do not accept rejection from medical service providers, the police or the courts. Arm yourself with information about your rights, join support groups and understand that you are the one who has the right to demand these services. If you don’t get them or are traumatised again when you approach them for help, then you are within your right to complain and get someone else to help you.
‘Recovering from being sexually assaulted isn’t easy but you don’t have to be defined by your abuse. There are hundreds of women who are empowering themselves and others post-abuse.’
List of free counselling services around the country:
1 Rape Crisis Cape Town
021 447 9762 – 24 hour Crisis Line
Who are they: The oldest organisation in SA supporting the recovery of survivors.
‘Our mission is to promote safety in communities, to reduce the trauma experienced by rape survivors, to empower women, to promote gender equality, to strengthen the criminal justice system and to work actively to address flaws in legislation.’
Rape Crisis counselling is built on what the organisation calls the ‘Principles of Empowerment’. Counselling facilitates healing by offering safety and respect, providing ongoing support and educating survivors to make informed decisions.
What they can do for you:
- Face-to-face counselling with experienced counsellors at our three centres in Cape Town (Athlone, Observatory and Khayelitsha)
- Counselling for family members, partners, spouses or friends of the survivor
- 24-hour crisis line where survivors can speak to a counsellor in English, Afrikaans or Xhosa
- Support groups for survivors who have completed their counselling sessions
- Support at five courts in Cape Town for survivors testifying in their trial
- Pre-trial consultations to help survivors prepare for the trial
- 24-hour containment at two Thuthuzela Care Centres (Karl Bremer and Heideveld Day Hospital) and Wynberg Hospital
JHB: 0861 322 322/011 728 1347
DBN: 031 312 2323
Who are they:
‘We’re a friend who’s available to listen 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We counsel on the phone or face to face, and we don’t charge a cent. Unless you want to donate!’
LifeLine centres assist in helping survivors make informed decisions after they have been assaulted or abused.
What they can do for you:
- Services across the country, including Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town
- 24-hour counselling services
- Face-to-face counselling
- Youth development programmes
- Support groups
3 TEARS Foundation
Helpline: SMS *134*7355#
Who are they: TEARS Foundation not only brings hope and healing to survivors of sexual assault and violence, but also provides support for the road to recovery.
What they can do for you:
TEARS provides access to crisis intervention, advocacy, counselling and prevention education services for those impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Confidential services are provided to all victims at no charge.’