Cape Town - For a young lay counsellor at Rape Crisis Cape Town, it is hardest to leave the realities of her clients in the counseling room.
A 22 year-old lay counsellor based at the organisation said: “It is difficult to retain hope in people and makes me weary of places I considered ‘safe’ before. It is hard having to deal with the societal condemnation of rape survivors or the way people don’t see the magnitude of the problem. It is very challenging knowing the extent and scale of sexual violence and seeing the world in the same way.”
Despite the harrowing stories she has heard during sessions with her clients, the cousellor said that there were an equal amount of hopeful stories.
“That is why it is difficult to find a specific incident that has affected me deeply. Each client’s story represents another face to this violence and comes with its own unique realities. I am always touched when clients come back for counselling as it can be a difficult - albeit helpful - space to be in,” she said.
“Returning clients creates a more coherent picture of recovery and for me, it is deeply touching when a survivor has changed their attitude towards themselves. Often with people who have experienced rape, survivors experience a lot of self-blame and guilt,” she continued.
In the counsellor’s experience, rape survivors think that what happened to them was their fault, that they did something wrong or deserved being raped.
“Society reinforces and facilitates this way of thinking and so it is often incredibly difficult for a survivor to shake this belief. However, it is important that this narrative be destabilised as it is detrimental to recovery. Seeing a survivor overcome these feelings and recognise that the perpetrator is solely and wholly in the wrong is always deeply affecting as it signals to their attitudes towards themselves and their progress in recovery.”
The most consistent change is how trauma plays itself out in various unsettling ways but then culminated in post-traumatic growth, she said.
“Often when clients first come to Rape Crisis they don’t know how to reclaim their lives and feel powerless and vulnerable. After counselling, clients are empowered with ways to cope with trauma and to create a life for themselves in which they can be happy in spite of what happened to them.
“This recognition represents a mind shift from feeling powerless and incapable because of trauma to using and dealing with trauma in a way that is not detrimental to their lives. When you first meet a client they are often experiencing major symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome; sleeplessness, depression, hypervigilance, guilt, isolation, physical complications are often present and need to be dealt with in the first session,” she said.
However, with many clients these symptoms decrease with counselling and this is a tangible way in which the counsellor measures progress.
“Clients can go from being suicidal or engaging in maladaptive behaviours like substance abuse to finding jobs for themselves, choosing to pursue a criminal case or even just finding the courage to go on,” she said.
When asked how counselors deal with women who might have been faced with indifference by authorities, she said: “The court system is not at all conducive to recovery and survivors are often subject to insensitive remarks or attitudes that can cause secondary victimisation.”
“We do give clients the option of laying complaints but often that signals a whole extra process a survivor may not feel up to dealing with. It is also difficult as these people are key to helping a survivor make a case against a perpetrator and so there is a certain level of rapport that has to be maintained,” she said.
The best way to deal with that situation, is to focus on the survivor, equip them with the resources and tools that they need to rely on themselves in a helpful manner, said the counsellor.
“Often people think that pursuing a case is the only way to find closure, but this idea needs to change and survivors must be able to be them for themselves as they cannot rely on the authorities for support. Central to our work at Rape Crisis is providing these kinds of resources and self-development.”
For people interested in pursuing a career in rape counselling, the counsellor said: “The best advice is to be involved in fighting rape as soon as possible in as many ways as possible. This is an epidemic that needs to be fought on the home front and we just aren’t seeing enough of that.”
In her case, being a counsellor has opened her eyes to the scope of the problem and the realisation that society has a long way to go. “You need to be able to hold your own in a room full of people who victim-blame or treat rape lightly or inevitable because those social attitudes follow a client into the counselling room and are one of the most prevalent hurdles to recovery.”
For more information, e-mail Rape Crisis on [email protected] or contact their 24-hour Crisis Line at 021 447 9762.