Staying mum about sexual assault

We should encourage people to speak up about abuse, but only when they are ready

When I was in high school, I went out for a walk one day and saw one of the students sitting by the water. We were not friends, but I knew her because we had a class together. At first, I wanted to sit with her, but I felt it would infringe on her privacy.

She waved when she saw me, so I walked over. She had always been nice to me but we had never really had a chance to talk before. Many boys had a crush on her. She was smart and beautiful, and she always made it so easy to talk to her, so I understood why everyone was drawn to her.

We were from different countries and had different sets of friends, so we never really hung out. It was one of the first times we had a conversation.

"I love the water, but I also hate it because of all the memories I have of it. I was so young, and when he took advantage of me, I stayed silent because I didn't want to make him mad,” she said. “I don't talk to people about it because when I do, I change in their eyes."

In an instant, she changed in my eyes. It was the most silent I had been when sitting with someone. I tried to understand why she did not tell others about the incident.

It is easy for us to say that one needs to open up and bring attention to sexual assaults, but the truth leaves people vulnerable to repercussions. Quite often society blames the victim, that it was the way she was acting or what she was wearing, when the only reason someone gets assaulted is because the perpetrator chose to do so.

She and I did not talk much for the rest of the year, but when the school year ended, she asked me if I wanted to take a walk and sit by the water again. She told me her best friends did not know, and she was not ready to tell people.

I never quite understood why she chose to open up to me, but maybe she just needed someone who did not know her too well to listen and not tell her what she should do.

We hear the horror stories of sexual assault every day. When someone comes forward, there are always people who question if it is true or made up. It takes immense strength to stand up to all those opinions and voices.

She told me she went to hospital and had to repeat details of the assault four times because they kept sending a different nurse. I cannot imagine being in such a vulnerable position, having to repeat and relive the incident over and over again. She said repeating her experience made her doubt her own credibility.

I understand the importance of coming forward and speaking up. It is necessary to bring light to the prevalence of such crimes, but some people find comfort in silence because they are processing it themselves.

It is unfair to ask those who have suffered to share their story to heal themselves. We think we know best, and tend to have opinions on everyone else’s life. But how do we know what is good for someone when their situations are different?

She told me she was aware that she should talk to a therapist and felt guilty for staying silent, but it is her life and her choice. It would be unfair for anyone to ask her to do something she was not ready for. But when she is, she will do everything in her power to do what she is supposed to do, she told me.

I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. And it was not my place to tell her what to do, the most I could do was be there to listen and support her.

People have different coping methods to deal with trauma, and we have no right to tell them what is best for them. Some people need more time to heal than others. Some have a less difficult time speaking up, while others keep the truth buried in their hearts for a long time.

I still remember that evening looking at the water with her. We were holding hands, not knowing what her next step in life would be.

We lost touch over the years, and I still wonder how she is doing now. I know she will talk when she is ready. I know she will speak up when it is her time.

Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.

Anjana Rajbhandary