Healing from the trauma of childhood sexual violence is possible

But there are barriers that need to be broken.

Young girl seen looking away sitting on a swing
I am fighting for a world in which trauma does not define its victims, writes Mpamira [Getty Images]

“I believe you.” “There is support out there for you.” “It was not your fault.”

I am a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and those are the words I needed to hear as a kid, as the trauma of my abuse began to bury itself deep within me.

I didn’t hear those words, and I didn’t have the support to process what had happened to me, so instead, I shut it out. It was my way of surviving.

Looking back now, however, I realise there was always something in me that wanted to change things. To speak up. To heal. To prevent others from going through what I had. And my trauma eventually drove me to the work I am proud to say I do today.

I have been a survivor for 27 years and a mental health specialist and therapist for 14 years, but it was not my professional training, family, community, or friends that prompted me to finally process my trauma. It was the bravery of other survivors.

Now, I am fighting for a world in which trauma does not define its victims. It is absolutely possible to heal and thrive as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, but there are barriers that must be broken down to speed up that process. Here’s how I think we can do it.

First, we need to stop victim-blaming.

The first step to healing from the trauma of childhood sexual violence is being believed. But sadly, across the world, rape is a crime for which shame and blame are continuously placed on the victim.

Cultures and communities have their own nuances, but for the majority of crimes the perpetrator is tried and held to account, and the victim is believed and compensated. Yet time and time again, survivors of sexual assault are questioned, doubted and scrutinised.

Why did you allow this to happen to you? What were you wearing? Why didn’t you just say no? Why didn’t you scream? Did you fight back?

This culture of victim-blaming is extremely damaging. It prevents the reporting of crimes and it traps survivors in silence, unable to access the support to heal.

If we are to change this, adults must become trauma-informed. We need to identify grooming behaviours and signs of trauma in children so that those who are unable to speak up are seen and heard. We must understand and remember physical responses to sexual assault – fight, flight or freeze.

For many people – children especially – to freeze and shut down is the natural physical response to threat. It is often the only way for children to survive in that moment. It cannot be held against them.

The second major barrier to healing for survivors is the gaps in victim support.

The moments, hours and days immediately after a child has been sexually violated are formative, and it is essential that communities are educated and equipped to provide timely trauma-informed support.

When I was a young adult, I volunteered as a therapist in Uganda. Based at a school for orphans, in a community ridden by HIV/AIDS, there was a deep need for mental health support despite the lack of awareness.

On my first day, a teacher nonchalantly said to me, “You can start with this little girl, she was raped yesterday.”

She was nine years old.

Soon, word got around about the work I was doing and young girls began to approach me. One was a five-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by her HIV-positive grandfather. Another was a 19-year-old who had been repeatedly raped by her father since she was four.

These three girls – the first that I met and supported in that community – were the first ones to give me the courage to literally say, “Me too”. I had to tell these girls that what they experienced had happened to me, too. More than 20 years before.

I have since dedicated my career to plugging these gaps in victim support. I am not trying to add anything new or groundbreaking, I am simply trying to ensure that survivors can access urgent and essential support when they need it most and, importantly, that they are believed.

This is at the core of the work I am doing with Mutera Global Healing, rooted in three pillars – prevention, healing and justice. We are training young graduates in Uganda and Rwanda in social work and placing them into communities where frontline support services are desperately needed. And we are making sure they are situated in places where survivors will go – hospitals, police stations, schools. Survivors have suffered enough without having to jump through hoops to seek out the support they deserve.

The third barrier to healing is stigma, which causes deep-rooted shame and isolation.

The solution? Community, acceptance, allies. I recently found these things in the Brave Movement.

Those closest to the issue are closest to the solution, and the Brave Movement is speaking up to make sure survivor perspectives are not just heard, but listened to and acted upon.

Just a couple of weeks ago, survivors from all over Europe travelled to the European Parliament in Brussels to take their seat at the table as the proposed EU Regulation to Prevent and Combat Child Sexual Abuse reached critical stages of debate. At the same time, survivors – myself included – gathered in the US on Capitol Hill as members of the movement delivered a national blueprint laying out evidence-based interventions the US federal government can take to ensure prevention, healing and justice for children, adolescents and adult survivors of childhood sexual violence.

I have found profound healing and acceptance among this global community of brave and strong survivors. We are making waves at the highest level to make sure children grow up safe and free, and that is validating and empowering.

But fighting for change on an issue that is in many ways taboo is isolating, exhausting, and often re-traumatising. We need others to be brave, too. We need allies.

One of my favourite African proverbs says, “If you want to go fast – go alone, if you want to go far – go together.” This is what the Brave Movement means to me – change must be led by survivors but if we want to go far, it will take collective, global action at scale.

If you are reading this as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, know you are not alone. If you are reading this as an ally, join our fight.

To learn more about the Brave Movement, follow them on Twitter and Instagram. For advice on getting support, visit the Brave Movement and Mutera Global Healing websites.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.