“My life has been a nightmare since my first rape at the age of 13. I went to a wedding with my family in Bunyakiri, and while fetching water from the river, my friends and I were raped. I was raped by a number of men – I have never been able to count – and since then, I have been physically paralysed and am disabled,” she recounted.
“One month afterwards, I realised that I was pregnant. A baby boy was born of this rape, but this child will never know who his father is because they were too many that day to know for sure. These men destroyed my life.”
Nathalie’s nightmare was far from over. Three years later, she went to her cousin’s wedding in Kalonge, around 45km (28 miles) from where she was first raped.
Again, rebels attacked the village, but this time Nathalie could not even try to run. Despite her physical paralysis, several men raped her that day. She later gave birth to her second child.
She asked: “Who should I fight? My fear, my pain, my despair or the unknowns that are the basis of my misfortune?”
Nathalie’s story is not unusual in eastern DRC. Many women are raped multiple times.
Sarah is a mother, an advocate, a public speaker, and a survivor of child sexual abuse.
The first time that Sarah disclosed her abuse was to her mother at 20 years old. In her heart, that was all Sarah wanted to do at first, as she had a close relationship with her mother and considered her like a best friend.
“It was really scary telling her what happened to me because I had been groomed by my stepfather for so long that my mother would never believe me, that she would deny it, and take his side. These were things that he would tell me on a regular basis that made me think I really couldn’t tell her, until it was just too much.”
Sarah’s mother was very supportive once this was disclosed to her. Sarah disclosed the abuse in a written letter and taped it to the front door and then left the house. Once her mother read it and got in touch with Sarah, the first thing she said was: “Come home. He’s leaving; come home.”
Sarah remembers that when her mother told her to come home, “it felt like a weight came off of me. She believed me.”
When Sarah returned home, her mother embraced her. She melted into her mother’s arms and felt an ease as she was held, loved, believed, and protected.
“I told my mom the first time it happened, when it stopped, and how long the abuse had been going on. From that point, I didn’t want to live in the house anymore. I wanted to move because I was molested in every single room of my childhood home. Every room was a horrible memory for me and my mom responded with ‘Okay, we will move then.’”
Sarah and her mother left the house and rented a beautiful townhouse three weeks later, which was like a safe haven to them. After the move, Sarah’s mother contemplated reporting the sexual abuse and asked Sarah if she wanted to go through with it, which she did, because she felt like her stepfather should be brought to justice for the years of abuse Sarah endured at his hands. With the help of a supportive investigator and a district attorney, Sarah’s experience within the system was a great one and ultimately led her to getting justice for herself.
In 2019, Sarah decided to speak publicly about her story for the first time as a keynote speaker for her local Child Abuse Prevention Center where she shared her story in front of hundreds.
“Even standing there, to me, was unbelievable. At 12 and 13 when it was happening to me, I vividly remember laying in my bed, crying, not knowing what was happening saying that I would take this to my grave. Nobody will ever know this happened to me because: A) it makes me feel gross, damaged, and unlovable, and B) because he told me that no one would believe me anyway.”
There were many reasons why Sarah felt like she couldn’t talk about it, but the fact that she was standing in front of a podium talking to a room of 100+ people was mind-boggling.
“When they asked me to be a part of the event, I didn’t know the magnitude of it. All these important officials were there at the annual banquet that supported the cause. There were so many chairs there; but, I had my mom and a good friend cheering me on. I had so many people supporting me that knew me on a personal level, it was very comforting. I remember going up to the podium shaking, I was so nervous. But when I got up there, I just spoke. The words came and I spoke my truth. It was an amazing experience and I still have the plaques on my wall.”
After sharing her story, Sarah became a part of the Board of Directors for a Child Abuse Prevention Centre. She also has an interest in working on expanding the state’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, especially since she almost missed the cut-off time for reporting on her case. If she had waited one more year, Sarah would not have had the opportunity to press charges and her perpetrator would have still been out and about living his life.
“As survivors, we live with this forever and it affects big things in my life, and I think the statute of limitations should not exist in anywhere.”
Therapy and speaking are among the many things that have been helpful and beneficial to Sarah on her journey to healing.
“Therapy has been helpful. My therapist has known me since I was 16, even before I disclosed, and while it was happening to me, I didn’t even tell her. After I disclosed it to her, it was another layer of things to talk about. Therapy has been so helpful to me. In addition to talking about it in safe spaces. The more I share my story, the more power I take back from my abuser. He took so much of my childhood. He took my voice for so long. The reason I speak about it is to help others and to help myself. The more I talk, advocate, and help, the more power I have. He has taken enough from me and he will not take anymore.”
Sarah shares one final thought for survivors and anyone who a survivor might disclose to: “There is so much power in belief. Just the simple sentence of ‘I believe you’ can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life.”
Yinka is a mother, a gymnastics school teacher, a swimmer, and a survivor of child sexual abuse.
Yinka was 14 years old when she was sexually assaulted by an employee at her secondary school who also happened to be a gymnastics teacher. During the time of the abuse, Yinka became pregnant by her perpetrator. She later disclosed this to her school officials, after her last day of exams, and he was fired. The perpetrator was then re-hired at her school even though the authorities were aware that he had sexually abused her.
Yinka first disclosed the abuse to her best friends mum.
“I felt very comfortable talking with her. She prepared me on how to share the abuse with my mum and explained what grooming was and looked like. She helped me realise I was a victim of grooming. I then went home and told my mum, and she was supportive. It was sad and I could tell my mum was distraught.”
Yinka mentioned that her mother was “trying to process it herself” during the time. Although it was difficult, Yinka and her family were thankful that they had Yinka’s daughter in this world.Now a youth gymnastics coach herself, Yinka is concerned about potential predators’ access to young people. She notes that she has seen local news stories regularly over the past six years about a teacher or a coach assaulting a student.
“Coaches are the top perpetrators and there are a lot of reasons behind that. One, they are typically younger. You communicate with your athletes more and spend more time with them. You have more things in common. You spend more time with your sports coaches than with your teachers. ”She’s pleased to see more schools and youth-serving organizations making safety a top priority.
“I am also swim coach at a local private secondary school where they run background checks on new incoming teachers and coaches that are in place to keep children safe. Furthermore, there are rules regarding communication with my athletes. You cannot follow students on social media. You can’t text a child without a parent in the chat or another coach. You can never give a child a ride home. There are a lot of rules, and they are in place to protect yourself as a coach and to protect the athlete. If there are no rules, things will get broken.”
Yinka also believes it’s important to talk about sex education and sexual abuse early.
“We started talking about Jesus and God when I was two. I knew who Jesus was and that was a complex topic to understand. I understood he was someone we prayed to and someone who watched over us at a very young age. But this is a comparison I used to use a lot in defending talking to my daughter about sex. What’s the difference? We talk about Jesus and that’s super complex too. We need to teach and talk about consent and grooming. Because I was so unaware of what that meant, it took so long to realise and process what actually happened to me.”
Yinka is speaking out now but was not comfortable coming forward initially. She noted that “it was when Aly Raisman, an American gymnast, was giving her testimony that I realised I needed to tell my story too. It needs to be heard far and wide.”
Remember, she says, that “shame is not yours to carry. It’s theirs. Regardless of what your story may look like, whether you knew the person, whether you consented on going over, whether there were drugs and alcohol involved, whether you had consensual sex before, whether that is your boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever the case may be, you can be standing in front of someone totally naked and revoke consent. And that is where it stops.”
Allegra was assaulted, abused, and repeatedly raped by her husband over the course of four years. It started with controlling behaviour and emotional abuse, and escalated to increasingly violent physical and sexual assault.
As is often true in situations of intimate partner sexual violence, the perpetrator used grooming, social isolation, psychological pressure, and emotional manipulation to continue the abuse. “I was so co-dependent on him, the thoughts of him leaving terrified me.”
Allegra told a friend about the abuse and requested that she not tell anyone else because she was afraid it would break her family members’ hearts to know. The friend immediately told Allegra’s mother, who confronted her. Ashamed and not ready to share, Allegra denied the abuse. She did not confide in anyone for another three years.
Allegra had been working in victim advocacy for years before she met her husband, which made Allegra feel guilty about not disclosing the abuse. “I would go to work everyday and I would feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite. You can come up with safety plans for everybody else, but can’t make one for yourself.”
At a later point in the abuse, Allegra recalls driving to the hospital for a sexual assault forensics exam. “I sat in the parking lot looking at the doors to the emergency room for an hour. It was hot in the car, but I wouldn’t roll the windows down or turn on the A/C. I wanted to die.” From fear of her husband’s reaction and of losing control of her story, she drove home without receiving an exam.
One of the rapes resulted in a pregnancy, which her husband attempted to sabotage because he did not want a child. “He started hitting me in the head a lot. He would do other things to increase my stress levels, things that were blatantly unhealthy for me and the baby. Smoking around me was his favourite activity.”
The abuser intentionally drove them into oncoming traffic while her seven-month-old son slept in the back seat. “That was a wake up moment for me. That was my catalyst.” She did not want him to be further affected by his father’s abuse. The next day she left with her son, and contacted a lawyer and a therapist.
Allegra reported the abuse to the police, and she and her son are safe from the abuser, who has fled the country. Because of the abuse, Allegra has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has had suicidal thoughts. She also experiences eating and sleep disturbances, adult bed wetting, nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety.
She has found counselling, anti-depression and anxiety medication, and an emotional support animal to be useful during her healing process. “The biggest thing for me was when I got to the point where I could let go of responsibility for my husband’s actions. I held myself accountable for a long time.”
Allegra is busy raising her four-year-old son, and focuses on teaching him about respect, good touch/bad touch, and correct terms for body parts. She wants him to grow up knowing he is in control of his body. She continues to work in victim advocacy, and is considering going back to school for her master’s degree.
“For someone in a similar situation, there’s help out there. Don’t lose that hope.”