Arifat (she/her/hers) is a Senior majoring in Social Work and Political Science. She is working in the Women’s Center this year for her social work field placement.
Content Note: This blog is written from my experience as a first-generation immigrant and a Nigerian-American. After reading I encourage to think about your own identities and communities of belonging especially in relation to the experiences of survivors of sexual violence and ways allyship can be cultivated by yourself and others.
When I started my internship at the Women’s Center last August, I did not know what to expect. We were going through a pandemic and I never imagined that I would have to do my social work field placement online. I was scared, uncertain and still adjusting to being in the virtual space. One of my assigned responsibilities was to be a co-facilitator for an online We Believe You discussion group. This is a group for survivors of power-based violence like sexual violence and domestic violence. I felt on unsolid ground as I navigated the unknown going into this experience. I kept asking myself, why couldn’t you have been asked to facilitate a different group? Why did it have to be this one? I was worried about how it would affect me mentally; I was worried about saying or doing the wrong thing; I wanted to help, but I was not familiar with providing support to survivors of sexual violence. Yes, I have had friends share their experiences with me, but in those moments when they shared their stories, I was clueless on how to be there for them. I did not know how to be a safe space or what a safe space meant. Fortunately, as I began my work with survivors, I began to learn.
To me holding a safe space for survivors is not just about allowing them to share their stories with you. It is not just about nodding with a sad look on your face, but then acting like they never shared their story with you afterwards (trust me, I have inadvertently done this before!). Sometimes being a safe space is about the little things, like asking if they are comfortable with sharing a potentially triggering post and then accompanying it with a content note; checking up on them during stressful times; listening and believing them; asking them what they need, if they need anything that you are capable and comfortable with providing. It is also about educating yourself. Understanding that sexual violence comes in various forms, and it is does not always include physical violence. Most of all maintaining a safe space even when you assume there are no survivors in the spaces means that you are creating an environment that allows everyone to feel comfortable enough to share their experiences, their stories, and ask for support and help when they need it. Over the course of the past few months I have also realized this requires a brave space which is a framework the Women’s Center uses as a foundation to its programs and space. This means cultivating a space where everyone respects each other’s opinion and are able to challenge themselves or each other. The Women’s Center has a more in-depth outline of what it requires to create a brave space. It does take a tremendous amount of courage to in these spaces.
As someone who comes from a community of Africans and immigrants, it has been extra hard for me to show up for survivors. When talking to my parents’ generation and some of my agemates I have found that victim blaming and abuser enablement is rooted in our culture. As a child I witnessed and heard stories of extended families going to beg a wife and her family to come back to her husband. It did not matter that she left because of abuse. It did not matter that she did not feel safe anymore. All that mattered was that their marriage stayed intact. One can just imagine what the African LGBTQ+ community has to go through. Especially with countries like Nigeria, where homosexuality carries a criminal offense. LGBTQ+ survivors are not acknowledged, and oftentimes ignored when they speak up. Accusations of rape are often met with disbelieve, shame, and victim blaming. Being an ally in the African/Nigerian community means speaking out not only when it impacts you, but every time.
And, let me be clear. These challenges to a survivor-centered belief system is not isolated to only the Nigerian community. If you are from a different community think about what the culture behavior towards survivors looks like; what can you do to lend your voice to people from your community who have been victims of sexual violence. Educate yourself and those around you including family. There is a gap in the research on the prevalence of sexual violence in African immigrant communities, or most minority communities, but we are have the capacity to learn and increase awareness of this as a global issue that affects every culture and ethnicity. So, show up and speak out. Be a safe space for anyone who needs someone to believe in them. Find out about resources around you for survivors. You never know who might need it. If you are not sure where to start, some helpful articles will be attached at the end of this blog.
African countries like Nigeria might not have laws and resources that protect survivors or victims of sexual violence and assault, but its immigrant community has the opportunity to do better. It might seem like a losing battle against biased cultural beliefs, but I believe it is a battle that can be won. Being at the Women’s Center has shown me the power in creating awareness. Sometimes all some people need is access to education. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so as this month comes to an end I encourage you to a part of the solution. Consider ways in which intersecting identities inform a survivor’s experience as well. For example, as I referenced earlier, the LGBTQ community is one group that shoulders a disproportionate amount of sexual violence globally. This is a group that most minority cultures fail to acknowledge. So, ask questions of your community; Where do these beliefs come from? How can I be a safe space for people within my community? Whether they identify as LGBTQ+, a survivor, or both there is no better time than now.
Helpful Articles/ blogs: