Rape trauma syndrome through the eyes of a victim

Throughout her life, 25-year-old Patricia Uwantege has dealt with various episodes of violence. One that stood out, however, was when she was raped at the age of 16 by a trusted friend.

“There were many cases of attempted rape, even at the age of three, that I luckily survived, but this particular incident happened at the hands of someone I trusted,” she says.


She had just returned to the country and found employment at an apartment building, after her single mother couldn’t afford to raise her tuition for school when she fell ill. Following a request from her employer to get rest, she decided to go to a childhood friend’s home to avoid her alcoholic and verbally abusive grandmother.


“I called my primary teacher who gave me my best friend’s brother’s number. I requested to go to their house and rest till I recovered. My best friend was still at school and her brother, who had missed work, came to my room and raped me,” she narrates.


The ordeal was followed by threats to leave the house or call the police.

“I was young, naïve and bleeding so I just decided to call my aunt, but I still didn’t tell her what had happened because she was living with my grandmother and I wasn’t comfortable living there.”

A rape victim is likely to develop stress as a result of shame and guilt because of the experience. 

Years later, with a son along the way and her family to fend for, she took to hawking goods door-to-door and doing different jobs. In a bid to try and belong, she tried to build friendships, until financial constraints crept in and they abandoned her.

“I often took my friends out and paid their bills which threw me into a financial deficit and depression. My friends turned their backs on me and I became a laughing stock, which made me resent them even more. I couldn’t afford rent and I had a loan to pay back,” she says.

With failed attempts to get her sanity back, including a Bible study course, she resorted to counselling from an NGO.

“I woke up one morning and decided that I needed help after the incidences reoccurred in my dream. One of the NGOs that I approached asked me to write my story and I wrote six pages. That’s when I thought I should share my story to encourage other people,” she says.

Uwantege is just one of the many girls and women coming out to share their rape ordeal as a step to healing, and also encourage others given the terror that comes with rape and violence.

“I want people to know that they are not alone out there. When I was still depressed, every time I heard people laughing, I thought it was about me. I had never felt safe or comfortable in my life, that I almost wanted to give myself up for adoption because I felt I needed a home to feel secure and sought for people to find comfort in. Just like I heard other stories that have given me the courage to seek help and move on, I hope mine does too.

“I wish around five years ago, I found a safe space to meet with other people and share stories, and give each other comfort. Instead of finding comfort in friends who ended up damaging me more,” she says.

Coping with RTS

Each survivor reacts to sexual violence differently. Culture and context of the survivor’s life may affect these reactions, and while some express their emotions, others prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.

Regardless of age, the impact of sexual violence goes far beyond any physical injuries, such as chronic pelvic pain and sometimes menstrual disorders, according to Joyce Kirabo, a counsellor in Kigali.

The trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can leave one feeling scared, ashamed, and alone or plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and other unpleasant memories, which can also be referred to as rape trauma syndrome (RTS).

Rape trauma syndrome is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviour. The theory was first described by nurse Ann Wolbert Burgess and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974.

 Patricia Uwantege during her interview with The New Times. She hopes that her story can inspire others to seek healing. /Photos (and cover) by Sam Ngendahimana

RTS is a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims immediately following a rape, but which can also occur for months or years afterwards. While most research into RTS has focused on female victims, sexually abused males (whether by male or female perpetrators) also exhibit RTS symptoms. RTS paved the way for consideration of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which can more accurately describe the consequences of serious, protracted trauma than posttraumatic stress disorder alone.

The symptoms of RTS and post-traumatic stress syndrome overlap. As might be expected, online sources mention that a person who has been raped will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. These feelings may subside over time for some people; however, individually each syndrome can have long devastating effects on rape victims and some victims will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years. It has also been found that rape survivors are at high risk for developing substance use disorders, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

“A rape victim is likely to develop ferocious stress as a result of shame and guilt because of the experience. Some of them become so sad, or develop fear or anger for almost everybody, and may even lose sexual desire since they associate sex with brutality,” she says.

Kirabo notes that the first step for any rape victim, regardless of gender, would be to report the case immediately to ‘One Stop Centres’ that are all over the country, or Police, so that they can open up a law suit against the perpetrator because some people tend to deny the experience.

“At the end of the day when you don’t open up to anyone, you are trying to reinforce that action and victimhood.

“Professional counsellors have been trained with specialised skills to help people recover from those traumatic experiences, they have high level of confidentiality about what has happened to the victims.

“There are also faith leaders like pastors and sheikhs who can be trusted to share information with, as well as trusted relatives and friends, so it’s good to open up and challenge that sense of helplessness and isolation. Also, join support groups that will help you cope,” she says.

Accept yourself, Kirabo adds, and know that you cannot undo your past. It is important to pay attention to any subsequent changes in your thoughts or behaviour, as they can greatly interfere with your ability to effectively function in different areas of your life.

“After that you will be able to reconnect with your body and feelings, and then connect with the rest of the world, like participating in social activities and building meaningful friendships.”

There is also a wide range of stigma associated with people who have been raped in our society, which, Kirabo says, causes victims to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorders that will give them nightmares, or make them feel like they are in danger.

For Uwantege, she hopes that one day stigma against rape victims will stop, to enable the victims open up and share their stories.

“Women are human beings and have feelings. We should stop focusing on only teaching women how to avoid rape, and focus more on educating men to stop objectifying women. It should start from households, parents should raise both genders equally, not putting the burden on the girls alone to behave right,” she says.

Kelly Johnson, a counsellor with Lighthouse, a counselling and training centre, says that victim blaming does happen, and advises that if someone shares with you their sexual assault ordeal, first and foremost, believe what they are saying, support them, listen to them and validate their story. Never blame them, because sexual assault is never the fault of the victim.

“Ask them if they would like to talk to a professional counsellor about what has happened, and support them, even accompany them, if they want that. Be gentle and caring,” she says.

Support groups can help victims open up and speak out on sexual violence. Net photos



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