In the days following the brutal rape of Fish Hoek resident, Lily Reed by 12 armed men during a home invasion in Lilongwe, Malawi, in 2012, she made the decision to be a voice for other women and not to let rape define who she is.
But often the voices of women remain unheard for years due to shame and the fear of being rejected by society.
Last week social media became the voice for thousands of men and women across the globe when American actress, Alyssa Milano, of Who’s the Boss fame posted to Facebook: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem #MeToo”.
The online campaign followed in the wake of an expose detailing countless allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. Within days thousands of men and women used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to voice the harassment and abuse they have suffered in their own lives by simply writing #MeToo.
Ms Reed who is the author of The Dark Seed, a non-fiction book about how she was raped and the journey to rediscovering herself, said speaking out is the first step to healing. “I was the first one to put up my hand and say ‘me too’ during the campaign last week. There is nothing to be ashamed of and it is not our secret to keep, it is the secret of the perpetrator. They should be the ones carrying the burden, not us,” she said.
She said in South Africa, one in three women will or have experienced sexual assault or rape in their lifetime and she was one in three.
Although the night of August 23, 2012, when 12 armed men forced their way into her home and her life, while her daughter, then six years old and her then partner’s son, then nine years old were home, is etched into every corner of her head, she believes that speaking out was the foundation of her healing process.
Her book started as an outpouring on a Facebook page she created in order to purge her thoughts into life. She said she knew the road to recovery would be difficult for her and she started writing because she didn’t want to forget the details.
She knew in order to process what had happened to her, she had to remember all the details, as painful as it was.
“When I started the book I knew there was a really important message in there. It was about surviving and coming through the other side without resentment, regret or anger. I knew as the attack was happening that if the children and I survived that this was going to be something that would take a very unique way of thinking. I would have to ensure that I was focusing on healing even as the attack was happening. I was thinking on so many levels during the long hours of that night. I was thinking far ahead into the future and forcing myself to think almost strategically about how to compartmentalise what was happening so that I didn’t become one of those victims that are broken and scarred for the rest of their lives. There was a time during the rape that I became aware that I had a choice. Maybe not the choice over what was happening to my body, but a choice over how my mind was going to see this violence against me in a way that would not ruin the rest of my life. I decided that the rape of my body was not going to kill my hopeful, adventurous and determined spirit,” she said.
Although there were days when she thought she would not recover, she did and although she has left parts of herself behind, the core of who she is did not change and she is no longer a victim but a warrior.
She said there is so much power in social media and the #MeToo campaign has proved it. The campaign has given men and women a platform to speak out and “putting it out there is taking a stand.” But, she says there can also be negative aspects to such a campaign. She says women who choose to speak out on such a platform must be prepared for the reaction they get from family and friends who might question why they have chosen to speak out on social media rather than speaking to family members and then, in some cases, people might not believe them. But Ms Reed says this is when they need to be strong and put up their shields in order to become warrior women.
“It takes so much courage to speak out, to take that first step and once it is done, a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders,” she said.
It was also the #MeToo campaign that encouraged singer and former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson to speak out about how she was allegedly raped by a high-ranking South African Football Association official almost 24 years ago.
Despite his identity being widely published online and in other media, it is standard media practice to only name a person accused of a sexual offence once he or she has been charged and pleads to the charges, therefore the Echo is not naming the alleged perpetrator
Today, Ms Reed has three children aged 14, 11 and three. She is happy and content and harbours no anger or hatred towards her perpetrators.
CEO of Women Against Rape, Janine Rowley, said she was inspired by the solidarity that women around the world have shown one another through the #MeToo campaign. “It is a testament to depth and widespread depravity of sexual violence against women, but more importantly it is a testament to the amazing bravery and courage that each of us holds within us. I applaud all those who have taken the step to raise their hands and admit that a crime has been committed against them. Lily Reed is one of those brave and courageous souls and has chosen to be a warrior, to speak her truth without shame or fear,” she said.
Fran Lee also from Women Against Rape said the aftermath of rape often involves a cluster of acute and chronic physical and psychological effects. She says the smallest thing can trigger emotions, thoughts, feelings and reactions. “Your mental and overall well being is messed up by rape and it destroys your self -esteem, your confidence and your ability to function and communicate normally in society,” Ms Lee said.
Ms Lee added that according to Samantha Waterhouse, head of the Women and Democracy Initiative at the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of Cape Town (UCT), more women are coming out because they know they will be heard and believed. “She (Ms Waterhouse) said women keep abuse a secret for different reasons. I agree because every woman has individual, personal and sometimes sticky situations and reasons why they won’t break the silence. The more awareness we create, the better,” she said.
Ms Lee said she is proud of people who speak out whether it is on social media or via another platform. “Abuse and rape are real and we need to empower our young girls, so that it will not happen repeatedly. It must stop and they need to know that they are not weak because they were raped. As soon as they speak out they will regain their power,” she said.
She said the #MeToo campaign definitely indicated how many people, worldwide are affected by rape, sexual abuse and harassment. “Hopefully speaking out will be a warning for men that they can not manipulate and silence women,” she said
In her opinion, it is empowering to stand up, break the silence and tell your story, even if you use a pseudo name or stay anonymous.