Since the #MeToo movement was launched in 2017, testimonies from sexual assault survivors have exploded, shining the spotlight on perpetrators who may have gone unpunished. In Singapore, the response has been a little quieter compared to the West, but we speak to three brave women who want to share their stories in the hopes of changing people's perceptions about sexual assault.
This is Devika's story.
My abuser was a family friend who was staying with us. In a way, you could say that he was my caretaker, as both my parents were working at the time. It all happened when I was between 6 and 7 years old. The entire abuse lasted slightly over a year.
It started out as harmless hugs and kisses on the cheeks. Over time, it grew into caresses and fondling. Eventually, he attempted penetration as well. Through it all, as wrong as it was, my perpetrator was very gentle and reassuring towards me.
He used to buy me sweets and take me to the playgrounds to play. So at that age, I could not see him as a threat. I thought he was someone who cared for me - which he probably did in his own messed up way - but that did not change the fact that he took advantage of my trust and abused me.
To be completely honest, at that age I did not quite understand the gravity of what was happening. So I was still fine and was unaffected by it for the most part. I was mainly confused about why my family reacted the way that they did upon finding out.
It was not until a few years later that I was able to grasp the extent of my abuse. So my trauma only hit me when I was around 10 or 11 years old. At that point, I felt completely lost. I felt guilty and foolish as I felt like it was somehow my fault that my perpetrator abused me.
I felt that I was to be blamed for all the grief I brought to my family members. I did not know what to do, or how to feel better. All I vividly remember is how hopeless I felt in those moments.
I did not tell anyone for the entire duration of the abuse. Like I mentioned, I did not realise what he was doing was wrong. He also managed to convince me not to tell anyone. His reasons were that my parents would feel jealous over the affection he was giving me, which my parents were unable to provide due to their busy work schedules.
Even when my parents found out, it was not because I informed them. My perpetrator tried to make a move on my older sister who then felt uncomfortable and told my parents about his behaviour. My parents immediately kicked him out of the house and confronted me about him. They asked if he touched me here or there. They had to persistently ask me for a good 20 minutes before I caved in and told them of the things he did to me.
They were angry. They felt betrayed yet foolish. They were deeply upset to learn what they had learnt and I feel that even today, there is a part of them that still blames themselves for what happened to me.
I had a temporary child psychiatrist who was counselling me during the court trial. I don't remember it being very effective. Not at the time at least, because I was seeing the child psychiatrist as part of the investigation, at which point, I was still unaware of my trauma. So that was only a few sessions. I would say less than two months.
But after the trial, I did not really have any professional help with regards to recovery. I suppose it's because my parents saw that I was still a happy child, unaffected by the entire ordeal. Perhaps they did not want me to be reminded of the incident, so they allowed me to be in my blissful oblivion. It was not until a year ago, when I was 23 that I reached out to a professional therapist for psychological help.
I think the reason I had to see (and continue to see) a professional therapist as an adult was because I did not seek help sooner when I was growing up. This was also because I was not ready to accept that I needed professional help as I felt that it would mean I was not strong enough to overcome my abuse. That being said the therapy has helped me immensely.
I do not know how the perpetrator felt upon being caught. My parents told me that he tried to flee the country but the police managed to catch him before he could. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but he did in fact get arrested. We had a court trial and he was sentenced to six years in the prison and 14 strokes of the cane. I do not have any idea where he is, or what he is doing now.
The #MeToo effect
I think the #MeToo movement has allowed survivors to have a collective voice. One of the biggest reasons survivors have refused to report or come forward in regards to their sexual violence is because they worry that nobody else would understand what it was like. They worry that they are one of few people in the world that have experienced sexual violence, and would be unsupported in their efforts to voice out.
#MeToo movement has allowed a huge group of people, men and women, of all ages to come forward and let their voices be heard. Moreover, it has allowed us as a society to accept the reality about the prevalence of sexual violence in our community. It has encouraged more dialogues to happen, which in turn has allowed us to identify sexual violence on a spectrum.
I think this entire movement has pushed the boundaries of the taboo that is sexual violence, and we now see that it is a problem. Once we address the problem, we can start working towards solutions that in the long run can bring about legitimate positive changes.
I believe Singapore should have a sex offender registry, which should be public. This is because I believe that if people are aware of this, they would hopefully make more effort to understand what constitutes as sexual violence and would be careful not to commit such crimes.
Education and understanding is key
Although there are many ways to prevent sexual violence, I think first and foremost we have to prioritize educating the public on consent and what constitutes sexual violence. In a recent instagram poll that I did, I learnt that many people still did not fully understand the concept of Consent. Majority of the people still did not understand what can fall under the spectrum of sexual violence.
I have had friends who have sexually harassed someone, or had non consensual sex with a significant other, without realising that it is a form of sexual violence. This, is due to lack of awareness on these topics.
I explained to them the severity of what they had unknowingly done - their initial reaction was denial as they genuinely did not want to assault or commit said sexual violence. However, when they came to understand that they had indeed committed it, without even realising it, they were absolutely devastated.
It broke my heart, really. Because I knew they never meant to commit said sexual violence, they just did not know. I told them that they ought to forgive themselves, as it was a genuine mistake on their part. So long as they accept their actions and become more mindful about these issues in the future.
There are still substantial gaps in people's understanding on this issue, which we can hopefully fill up with more dialogues and discussions like this.
The public can be more supportive by believing survivors when they come forward with their experiences. It takes a lot for a person to come forth and be so vulnerable. If survivors feel secure and safe in society, they will be more comfortable to come forward and speak up. The public can also help victims by avoid victim blaming. People must understand that when a perpetrator chooses to sexually violate someone, it is never the fault of the victim.
Most of the time, the sexual predator attacks someone as a measure to feel powerful. The reason that sexual violence is so traumatic is because the victim feels powerless in these situations. When we support and believe victims, we are allowing them take back some of that power that was ripped away from them during the act.
My experience has allowed me to grow more self aware. I am somehow able to look back and see a very clear picture of what happened, why it happened, and how it has impacted so many people including me, my family, my friends and my partners.
It was hard to trust men again, even though I didn't want to accept that I was finding it hard, and is something I still find challenging.
Everything has led up to this point in my life, where I am able to articulate my experiences and its impact on my life.
I have learnt that it was never my fault. I have learnt that I do not have to suffer in silence. I have learnt that it is okay, not to be okay; that seeking help is never a weakness, and that there is strength in solidarity.
Through it all I have learnt that kindness, love and compassion is always the answer.
AWARE launched #AimforZeroSG today, a campaign to build a society with no sexual violence. They also released a powerful video where survivors of sexual violence have bravely spoken out about what they’ve had to endure. Aiming for zero means owning the problem, giving real support, prevention and commitment. www.aimforzero.sg