Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

The war on women and men

You have to be able to talk for someone to hear you. You have to be able to speak the same language for someone to understand you. You have to be able to express yourself if you want someone to be able to empathise or sympathise with you. But what if you can’t talk? What if you don’t have the words or the language to speak? Worse, what if people don’t want to hear you?

Often when soldiers return from war they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because they are simply unable to process the events that they have been involved in and things that they have seen. We expect them to return and be the people they were when they left. We expect that they will be able to go about their lives as normal, doing daily mundane tasks and experiencing life as it was when they left. This is not always possible. For some this means that they express these horrors outwardly by becoming violent, alcoholic, abusive or angry. Others retreat internally and become depressed, or return to war because it becomes the only place where other people understand what they are going through without them having to talk about it. If we have not been there, we cannot understand. We can only sympathise.

The majority of soldiers are men, despite the potential for women to join the army. Allowing men to go to war is breaking a generation of men.

A similar type of PTSD affects rape survivors. It is called rape trauma syndrome, and like the effects of war, it has a powerful impact on the survivor. Most survivors exhibit some of the psychosocial, physical and behavioural symptoms. These can include shock, tension headaches, depression, flashbacks, eating and sleep disturbances, loss of memory and confusion. That is on top of the risk of becoming pregnant or contracting HIV or other STIs.

The symptoms of RTS are compounded by the process of reporting a rape. Rape survivors are still regarded with suspicion by many police officers, judges and prosecutors. They are not supported by the criminal justice system, and even sometimes by their family, friends and community. The stigma surrounding rape survivors traps them in a cloud of silence. Counselling services like those offered by many NGOS allow survivors to try and speak about their experiences. Once again, we cannot ever fully understand. We were not there. We can only sympathise.

Although men are also raped, the majority of rape survivors are women. The prevalence of rape and sexual violence in South Africa is a war against women. We are breaking a generation of women by allowing rape to continue.

It is impossible for somebody else to live our experiences. We are the only ones who are inside of our bodies, interacting with the world. There are no machines that can read our thoughts or sense our pain or pleasure. That is something that makes us interesting, but it has important effects. It means that if we can’t communicate our pain or pleasure, then it remains within us, and is not shared.

We live in a world where men and women are being broken every day. It is important then for us to consider how to rebuild these men and women, and how to rebuild the society that they live in. It is important to become involved in community and local initiatives that break the silence around the horrors of war and the trauma of rape. It is important to stop pretending that everything is OK, and to recognise that there is a problem.

It is time to break the silence, and stop the violence. Doing nothing is no longer an option.