Recently, while having a chat with some female friends, the issue of why victims of sexual assault do not report the crime came up.
One of my friends could not understand why it took years for women who allege they have been sexually assaulted, to report.
“Why didn’t they say something then?” she wondered. She just did not get it.
That was not the first time I had heard people question rape victims on why they never opened up. The fact is there are many reasons women fail to report sexual abuse.
What came to mind immediately was when US President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice.
There were reports of alleged sexual assault against him which happened decades ago.
Then the bold and brave Psychology Professor, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, came forward with her allegation against Kavanaugh and this turned into a national and international debate. Kavanaugh was accused of sexually assaulting and attempting to rape Dr Ford when he was 17 and she was 15.
President Trump in his usual tweet-happy mood praised Kavanaugh as "a fine man, with an impeccable reputation” while he attacked Dr Ford, saying among others: "I have no doubt that if the attack on Dr Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.
I ask that she should bring those filings forward so that we can learn about date, time, and place!"
President Trump and many others wondered why Dr Ford did not report the alleged sexual assault against her 36 years ago and had only brought it up when Kavanaugh was nominated.
President Trump’s attack on Dr Ford led to #whyididntreport trending. Just like when the #MeToo movement started on social media, people who had been sexually harassed, abused or assaulted felt the need to speak up publicly. Victims of sexual assault from diverse backgrounds shared with the CNN and the New York Times why they did not report.
Rape and defilement statistics from the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service (GPS) indicate that in 2017 there were 307 recorded rape cases and 790 defilement cases.
Apart from the recorded cases, a number of such cases also go unreported, and for those that get reported, it will be interesting to get the statistics on how many victims get justice in the end.
Many victims have kept quiet because the systems and structures of reporting do not help them when they speak out.
Commenting on the issue, the Executive Director of the Ark Foundation, Dr (Mrs) Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, indicated that one of the main reasons why women failed to report sexual assault was shame and guilt, as well as embarrassment. Some are traumatised or fear that no one will believe them or that the perpetrator may put up a fight.
Dr Dwamena-Aboagye notes that Ghana has a ‘blame culture’ and often when women are abused, they are blamed for putting themselves in that situation, but survivors of sexual abuse could not be blamed.
She said it was important for girls and society, in general, to be educated on the impact of sexual abuse so that victims would report to someone they trust or the appropriate institution.
“Most survivors of sexual assault think the impact will wear off after a while but the impact lasts longer than they think,” she said.
Furthermore, Dr Dwamena-Aboagye said it was necessary for safe havens to be created in churches, police stations or other private spaces for people to feel safe and confident to report sexual abuse.
Sharing similar sentiments, a Clinical Psychologist, Mr Nortey Dua, said the sexual assault was a serious violation of human rights and any form of such violation was a difficult thing to talk about depending on the nature of the relationship or perceived relationship between the victim and perpetrator.
There are many things that can complicate whether one is willing to disclose sexual assault, and according to Mr Dua victims of sexual assault go through serious psychological dilemma wondering how to talk about their ordeal, whether people would believe their story or blame them for what happened.
The other factor, he noted, was that victims of sexual assault contemplated the kind of response they would receive from society when they opened up.
Cost of disclosure
All those, he said, made the cost of disclosure very high for the average victim and, depending on how the victims felt, that may be a price too high to pay, so the victim would keep quiet and suffer in silence.
He said it was important to position society to listen first without judging and then move to the response modes that were required to handle victims of sexual assault.
He added that improving structures, training and building the capacity of personnel who handled sexual assault cases were essential so that victims would receive special care and not be made to go through “system induced trauma all over again.”
How the media portray victims is also very vital.
“There is the need for them to go through a successful transition from victims to survivors — any victim who remains a victim is an indictment on the society in which they live,” he stated.