It was a windy morning when I dashed out of bed in an unusual hurry to arrive at school on time.  I was excited – no, more than excited; my dreams had become a reality.  I had been patiently waiting for months until it came: my primary School exam results.  When I learned that I would advance to Secondary School, I had screamed with joy.  My parents, who had done their best to hide their fears from me, silenced me with relief on their faces.  And this was the big day.

 

It was 6.30am.  I waved goodbye to my parents and began my journey to my new school, singing as I walked.  The streets were not busy.  It was early.  But still, l was so excited that I could not stop myself from waving to every passersby I saw.

I had been walking for only a few minutes when a tall man down the street seemed to take notice of me.

“Young lady,” he called, “You are so beautiful.  Joyful.  What is your name?”

I knew all too well that I was not to talk to strangers, and so, with a sheepish smile, I continued walking past him.  He called again, but this time, he was asking for my number.

I don’t have a number, I thought, confused, Surely he knows I’m too young to have one.

When he called out to me the third time, it was accompanied with the firm grip of his hand on mine.  His tone was much hasher now.  At that moment, my heart began to pound and fear – true fear – overcame me.  I froze.

The stranger twisted my arm, pulling me with him and I began screaming.  I kicked at him and cried as I tried to free myself.  I lost my schoolbag as he dragged me behind a nearby bush.

I screamed into the filthy palm of this ruthless, unapologetic monster in the moments before the pain became overwhelming, and I fainted.   

I did not make it to school that day.  Instead, I regained consciousness slowly, whereupon l dragged myself to the police station.  My face was streaked with dust and tears, and my body seared with a sharp pain as l recounted the entire experience to the officer.

When I finished my story, trembling in the hard plastic seat, the officer called another over.  He asked me to repeat my story.  Then they called another.  Three times, l repeated this ordeal.  Every time I told it anew, I relived the pain and terror as though it was happening again.  When I finished the story, for what I hoped was the final time, the third police officer’s lip curled.

“You shouldn’t have been walking alone in the early hours of the morning,” he said, “You’re a young girl.  You should have had company.”

His words twisted in my stomach like a knife.

As awful as that moment was, my medical examination was worse.  There was no female doctor to inspect me, I learned upon arrival.  Ashamed and with my body feeling like something foreign and unclean, l undressed and lay on the table, at the mercy of another man opening me up.

“This time is different,” the police officer who came with me said, “This is the good guy.  He’s just checking if you were really raped.”

I didn’t ask the obvious question, but he sensed it, and answered it.

“You young girls lie a lot.”

My cheeks burned with humiliation.

A few weeks later, l had to go to court.  Since the examination, l had tried to move on with my life and forget the ordeal, but the memories haunted me.  They had caught the man who had assaulted me, but I still awoke in cold sweat nightly, terrified that he was nearby.  As l walked into the courtroom, I saw him.  He stared into my eyes, unflinching, and l began to weep in fear.

I gave my testimony with a breathless terror; I had to relive my worst day of my life in a room full of strangers in a desperate bid to convince the court that he had truly raped me.  As they brought my tattered uniform forward for evidence, I choked up.  l could not look at it, not with him staring at me.  He did not testify.  He wasn’t remorseful.  He had a look in his eye that threatened that he could do it all over again.

My rapist was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but the shame seemed to cling more to me than to him.  The brutal way in which the courts, the hospital, and the police had treated me compounded my suffering, leaving me raw and heartbroken.  They say that sexual assault is not a life sentence, that it does not ruin everything you have been building if you handle the aftermath the right way.  But how can a girl whose autonomy and faith in humanity is shattered in an instant be expected to do everything perfectly when the criminal justice system continues to victimize her?

I was the talk of my community – all the salacious gossip wondering how much fault was my own, “if we were being honest”.  If l was to relieve my experience, it pains me to say that l wouldn’t go to the police.  l wouldn’t want a court case because the entire experience derailed my healing by placing the burden of proof on my word.

I wanted to move forward with my life, but the systems that meant to protect me retraumatized me by forcing me to prove, time and time again, that I was a victim… when all I wanted was to be a regular girl.

This is just a story of one victim, yet each day, there are millions of women who are subjected to sexual assault around the world, and each day, they are blamed for the decision somebody else made to hurt them.  It is the one crime where the court of public opinion seems to hold its breath, waiting for the survivor to enact a perfect, infallible performance of a broken person before they can be believed.  No surprise, then, that the legal system follows this course.  After all, it is governed by people, and people have their own biases.

But that doesn’t make it right.  The system needs to change, and with it, our cultural notions about what does and does not constitute a “perfect” victim in cases of sexual assault.

So yes, the law needs to evolve to stop revictimizing sexual assault survivors.  But so do we.

 

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