Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence

Marie Claire speaks to Rape Crisis counselling coordinator Shiralee McDonald to find out how to support a friend during the difficult time following sexual assault

How can you support your friend immediately?

The hours after the attack are a critical time. Physical and psychological safety are both equally important. How someone is treated from that moment on can impact their recovery and whether or not they access treatment or help. It’s essential that your friend is involved in the decision-making process. There is also a sense of urgency in terms of getting medical treatment. They can go straight to the police station but they also can’t be turned away from a facility that deals with rape. It all depends on the survivor.

While there is no moratorium on reporting rape, if it is not done within 72 hours it decreases the chances of getting forensic evidence to support their testimony. Forensic evidence collection, tests and medication to prevent HIV needs to be done in that time. The victim will be asked for a skeleton statement when they report to the police and a fuller statement should be taken preferably after the forensic/medical examination and when they are in a state to do so. Medication for the prevention of pregnancy can still be done up to five days after the rape and antibiotics for STIs up to a point, but obviously the sooner the better.

If a survivor accesses services at a state facility these medical services will be paid by the state and won’t go through a medical aid. So at the state facility they would get both medical and forensic treatment for free. It is also the only place where the forensic evidence can be collected.

How can you support your friend later on?

Believe your friend, respect their healing process, and know that each person heals at a different pace. Listen to your friend without judgment, without trying to make it better or right and hold whatever it is that they are telling you in confidence. It is not always easy and it can be helpful for someone who is supporting a rape survivor to go for counselling. Your friend might need counselling too, but she should decide if and when to go.

What should you do if you see the perpetrator on campus?

If the perpetrator is on campus, consult the university policy to see what safety measures are in place that your friend can access. For example, at the University of Cape Town there is a no-contact order that can be applied for. If your friend has laid a criminal charge and feels the attacker is a threat, you can contact the investigating officer in charge of the case to assist her.

Is there anything you shouldn’t do?

Remember that rape is about the perpetrator exerting power and control over the survivor, and that the survivor is never to blame. Victim blaming perpetuates rape culture and further alienates survivors from their experiences and bodies.

What can I do if my friend wants to keep it a secret?

As difficult as it might be, you need to honour and respect this. As a friend you can of course discuss what the consequences might be or encourage them to seek help. Walk next to your friend and try not to walk too far ahead or behind them. Listen to what it is that they want for themselves.

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