US Embassy Ghana’s Me, Too! Event Sparks Candid Dialogue on Sexual Abuse, Urging Communities to Create Safe Havens

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By Rhoda Krah & Lawrencia Nyarko.

A discussion of the book Me, Too! Child and Adult Sexual Abuse and Prevention by Susan Sophie Bierker held this afternoon at the American Embassy in Accra shed light on the critical subject of sexual assault and rape culture in Ghana. The focus was not only on the importance of raising awareness but also on creating safe havens within our communities where victims can courageously share their experiences without judgment.

The event was an American Center Monthly Book Discussion, part of the US Embassy Ghana Public Affairs Section’s American Spaces Outreach Program scheduled for November 2023.

As the two-hour discussion progressed, 40 participants in the talking circle emphasized the urgent need for fostering a compassionate environment that encourages open dialogue around the sensitive issue of sexual abuse. Participants came from African University College of Communications,  University of Media, Arts and Communication, Success Book Club and some government agencies.

Participants in a talk circle. Photo courtesy US Embassy Ghana Public Affairs

The circle, which was moderated by US Ghana Embassy Public Affairs Director Jennifer Green and OBGYN Nurse/Advocate/US Army Soldier Jennifer, encouraged participants to open up and share experiences without judgment.

This initiative marks a significant step forward in breaking the silence and stigma that often shroud survivors’ voices in Ghana.

Sexual Abuse or molestation is any sexual act forced upon a woman, man or child without their consent. It is often perpetrated using force or by taking advantage of another. The subject of sexual assault is an uncomfortable one, and many people turn to shy away from conversations that relate to it. Information about what actually constitutes sexual abuse is therefore not always readily available.

One in four women – and about one in 26 men – have experienced completed or attempted sexual assault. According to national statistics on sexual assault, an estimated low 8% of women who experienced sexual assault said the police were contacted about the most recent incident, either by themselves or others. The majority (92%) of women who experienced sexual assault did not report the incident to the police.

In the context of Ghanaian schools, churches and the workplace, a prevailing concern emerges as victims think of the challenges associated with revealing instances of abuse by colleagues, their lecturers, and older men. Students for instance feel the power dynamics inherent in such cases often create a barrier for them to talk about, adding a form of complexity to addressing these sensitive issues.

In junior high schools in Ghana, teachers who abuse students are usually transferred to other schools instead of being punished. Student abusers are usually suspended temporarily, while their victims usually have to drop out or change schools.

A participant tearfully shared an experience of the trauma of coping with the gang rape of her classmate by other classmates during SHS. Another choked when she talked about years of abuse by her husband. Many more accounts were shared by both survivors and witnesses, but the common denominators were the futility of reporting and the absence of support.

Creating a safe space for people who are sexually abused is therefore essential; however, in Ghana, the reality often presents a challenging environment where victims find it difficult to share their trauma openly or have to endure blame.

“I was raped by three men at the age of eight”, a survivor of sexual abuse who was raised by her stepmother in Wa (Upper West Region) emotionally recounted her experience in the circle. “Family, which I thought could be my shield did nothing to help me and I couldn’t tell my parents too because they weren’t with me,” continued the college student.

Families are the people to turn to for our safe spaces, but they are not always welcoming. When they are, the communities tend to blame the victims. After this survivor suffered multiple rapes from close family members and a religious leader as a child, she didn’t know who to turn to.

“The trauma I went through made me to see life differently. My dating life is a mess because I am very scared of being in a relationship, and any time I enter one, I have to end it immediately they make mention of having sexual intimacy, but I’m happy I was able to speak up. And I’m living my normal life now,” shared a smiling survivor after the discussion.

American activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Bunke who popularized the #MeToo campaign

Advocates present explained that there are many emotional and psychological reactions that victims of sexual assault can experience. They assured the circle that it can happen to anyone, but healing is possible, and there are resources to help.

The Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit [DOVVSU] of the Ghana Police Service is a one-stop centre of services for victims of abuse and others. There are about 140 DOVVSU branches in police stations in the 16 regions that are ready to support and help victims. Just call toll-free 0800-000-900.

The book of the month, Me, Too! Child and Adult Sexual Abuse and Prevention by Susan Sophie Bierker, was first established in 2018 at the height of the social media campaign #MeToo Movement made popular by American activist and survivor Tarana Bunke after her own experience of sexual violence.

#MeToo is a social movement and awareness campaign against sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture, in which people publicize their experience of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. The hashtag #MeToo was used starting in 2017 to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem. #MeToo empowers sexually assaulted people through empathy, solidarity, and strength in numbers, by visibly demonstrating how many have experienced sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

Susan Sophie Bierker’s book is a skills guide on how to detect, prevent, and heal for thrivers, therapists, parents, and teachers. It’s not the current #MeToo movement that this book is about, but the next one.

In her experience as a therapist helping hundreds of those whose lives were touched by what is now a media circus and the cause of political debate, Susan Sophie Bierker found that it’s not the acts of violence and abuse that cause the most damage, but the silence. The current #MeToo movement is breaking the silence, but not addressing the cause. And if the cause is not addressed, if the acts are not prevented, intervened with, detected early, and healed, the next wave of #MeToo will carry with it shame because we know that it could have been prevented.

This book is for anyone who wants to know what to look out for in their neighborhood or how to detect the early warning signs that someone they care about is in trouble or how to help heal themselves or a loved one, if, like Susan Sophie Bierker, they are unwilling to stand by and allow another generation to suffer in silence.

This book could be made required reading for every teacher, every parent, every teen in the country. It could start a new movement, one that could be taken up by everyone in the country and taught to our sons and daughters so that the next generation will instead shout “NOT ME!”

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