Stigma against rape survivors undermines efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict

Report
from Tearfund
Published on 25 Nov 2016

· Research across four conflict-affected countries shows stigma is preventing survivors of sexual violence from accessing medical care and legal support.

· Aid agency Tearfund calls for greater investment in addressing the root causes of violence and stigma and building support networks for survivors of sexual violence.

Unless more is done to change attitudes and break taboos around sexual violence, survivors will continue to suffer alone without access to essential medical and support services, aid agency Tearfund said today.

Donors, governments and aid agencies must go beyond the provision of services such as healthcare, and urgently invest in the difficult task of tackling attitudes and perceptions if the fight against sexual violence is to be won, the agency said.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the week before the UK Government meets with experts and survivors to agree an action plan on stigma, Tearfund says that much more needs to be done globally to prevent survivors from being rejected by their families and communities following sexual violence.

Research over three years across Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia and the Central African Republic (CAR) shows the devastating impact of stigma, which cuts across continents and conflicts.

Speaking to more than 325 women, Tearfund found that survivors experienced an overwhelming fear of speaking out or accessing help. The vast majority of women stayed silent in order to prevent further rejection or abuse from those closest to them.

Tearfund’s Head of Sexual Violence, Veena O'Sullivan said: “We spoke to women who suffered brutal rape only to be rejected and ostracised by their families and communities. Stigma is preventing women from getting the medical, legal, economic and psychological support they so desperately need. Tackling the root causes of violence and stigma takes time and is complicated but governments and aid agencies must invest in training and support, working within communities to change attitudes, so survivors can recover from trauma and rebuild their lives.”

Survivors in DRC and CAR, many of whom reported they had been gang raped by armed men during conflict, often in public, said that their trauma was compounded by being abandoned by their husbands or immediate family as a direct result of their ordeal. Even where services were available, very few sought the medical support they needed due to fear of stigma.

In Colombia, women spoke of the same fear of rejection and abandonment. A third of the women said they had been abandoned by their husbands as a result of being raped by armed men. Women reported being afraid of reprisals, threats or death if they spoke out.

Rejection and mistreatment of survivors by communities in Myanmar was also common, with some churches forcing women to confess to their own guilt or marry the man that attacked them. Some women were ordered to leave their villages or homes. One survivor was asked to pay a fine to the community, forcing her into debt.

O'Sullivan said: “We know that survivors often turn to faith groups for safety and support, but religious leaders all too often reinforce the shame and stigma of the wider community. Yet we’ve also seen how with enough training and support, faith leaders can instead play a key role in transforming attitudes within their community – for example, in tackling stigma around HIV.

“Ending stigma can be life saving. The same shift in attitudes can happen with sexual violence – and for the countless women, men, boys and girls suffering in silence today, it has to.”

For interviews with sexual violence survivors or Tearfund experts, contact Anna Ridout at anna.ridout@tearfund.org or on +44 (0)7740 933518 or the out of office mobile +44 (0)7710 573749.