In a country where gender-based violence has reached alarming levels, survivors need empathy and support, not to be shamed or quizzed about their experiences. This also applies to social media platforms, which should be safe spaces for women to communicate about the abuse, writes Koketso Moeti
During the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children last year, the brutal and horrific rapes and murders of Precious Ramabulana, Gomolemo Legae and Kgaugelo Tshawane shocked South Africa.
The tragic end to their young lives shows why action is desperately needed to end gender-based violence in a country where a woman is killed every three hours – which is 4.8 times the global average.
There has also been a 4.6% increase in reported sexual offences.
While it’s tough being a survivor of gender-based violence, such stories can trigger emotions – given the country’s harrowing statistics – especially because many more cases go unreported.
It is understandable that after these shocking assaults and murders, some people choose to go online to make sense of it all or to find others who are upset too.
They may even choose to share their own experiences, including highlighting how authorities are failing to respond adequately to gender-based violence and femicide.
Due to the many barriers and stigma faced by women when reporting sexual violence, increasingly people are turning to the digital space, not only to demand accountability from institutions that fail to act, but also for support and justice for the survivors.
What I’ve observed, however, is that we often don’t know how to respond to disclosures of violence and inadvertently cause harm in how we respond.
Last year gqom queen Babes Wodumo – real name Bongekile Simelane – revealed she was in an abusive relationship by going live on Instagram as she was being assaulted by her partner.
While initial responses were empathic, she was brutally shamed by some after she got back together with him.
Here are steps you can take to avoid causing harm when people disclose their experiences of violence online:
1. Do not shame survivors for not leaving or responding as you expect them to: Very often when survivors disclose their experiences of violence, there are expectations of how they should respond.
As difficult and frustrating as it is for those who care about the person involved, survivors need support not judgement.
Given that one of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is when victims leave, the fear of retaliation is a legitimate concern.
Apart from that, manipulation, power imbalances in the relationship, belief that a partner can change and very real social expectations that women must be long-suffering to make a relationship work, are some of the reasons women stay. More support is needed.
2. Do not screengrab posts that aren’t public without survivors’ consent: I belong to many private groups on Facebook in which women share their stories of assault and abuse, which isn’t easy for survivors to do.
Some people share their stories in these groups because they think they are safe and intimate spaces.
But I have noticed that sometimes these private posts are screen-grabbed and shared publicly, with very little consideration that the person sharing their story may not want it publicised.
So always seek consent before screen-grabbing such posts to share publicly.
This also applies to Facebook statuses, which are sometimes only shared with friends and customised friend lists – rather than posted as public posts.
3. When a survivor shares their experience of sexual violence, do not ask for more details: Survivors who choose to share their experience do so for a variety of reasons.
I have seen people share their own experiences online only to be asked for more details, especially when the perpetrator is a well-known figure.
Survivors do not owe anyone their stories and shouldn’t have to be prodded for more details for others to believe that what happened to them was wrong.
There are many reasons people may not want to share certain details of their experiences and this should be respected. No one is entitled to anyone’s intimate trauma.
4. Do not share detailed experiences that aren’t yours without consent: Early last year, a number of Twitter accounts were started so people could anonymously expose alleged perpetrators.
People could share their experiences via direct message, and a screenshot of the message which excludes the handle of the person reporting would be taken and shared on the public timeline.
Some of the messages shared were from people giving detailed experiences that were not their own.
It is unclear whether or not the account holder/s checked with those who submitted and if they consented to their stories being shared.
We should always ask for consent before sharing others’ stories.
This is particularly important since perpetrators also use digital platforms to threaten, abuse and surveil women.
A perpetrator reading about themselves could expose the victim to very real risks of harm.
5. If someone is outed as an alleged perpetrator, don’t harass the women in their lives: While the Twitter accounts were outing alleged perpetrators, in some instances the women in their lives – partners, sisters and friends – were harassed.
It’s one thing to acknowledge complicity, but a totally different thing to try to hold women accountable for the actions of their men.
While the 16 Days of Activism are over, a new year has just started, with it comes the chance to do more to prevent gender-based violence and femicide.
We should all respond with more sensitivity online when survivors bravely share their stories.
Moeti is an activist and has worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. Last year, she was an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, an inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti