THE CULTURE OF SILENCE- BREWED IN GHANA’S “GIVE IT TO GOD” POT BY PRISCILLA A. VITOH

On a not so special Sunday morning a young lady opens her closet and lets out all the skeletons and bottled up emotions she had kept in there for many years. With tears and a wave of emotion as though the event happened only that morning, she recounts instances of continuous rape and sexual assault she experienced at the hands of a trusted cousin. What fueled her bravado that day remains a mystery but oh did she let it all out. Her aunt’s reaction, one of concern for the young woman but ultimately one of pride, that she kept this potential recipe for a family war to herself. The burden the Ghanaian society and perhaps the world at large puts on a victim of sexual assault be it male or female is summed up in the above. Apart from the torture and mental anguish that such victims may be going through as a result of being subjected to such betrayal and forcible access of their personal and intimate zone, there is a burden to keep the happening a secret to “save their family’s honor”. The culture of silence is very pervasive here in the Ghanaian society mainly because of the underlying fabric of our culture which is evidenced in our passive aggressive “give it to God” attitude.

A UN study conducted in 2006, suggested that at least one in every three women around the world has experienced sexual violence at some time. According to a six-year statistics released by the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service in 2017, approximately six women are likely to be raped every week. Out of the over 1,862 reported cases of rape, only six males were raped. The data further showed that majority of the cases were perpetrated by the victims’ own family members with a few being done by close friends. The daily news corroborates this finding. There is frequently news of people suffering sexual abuse in the hands of their teachers, family members and respected members of the society. In 2015, the country was thrown in a state of shock when news broke of alleged acts of sodomy committed on a young boy by a well-respected doctor in the Western region. Notable of this is that the acts of sodomy had been going on for years until the boy mastered the courage to speak up. Again in the same 2015, the whole country was awakened by allegations of rape against a known broadcaster. Although the number of cases seem high especially for females, the authorities have always maintained that only a small number of these cases are ever reported.  DOVVSU has consistently admonished people to report cases of sexual abuse instead of trying to resolve it at home. The Vatican is grappling with the repercussions of years of sexual abuse on young boys and nuns in United States and European countries being thrust to the fore. The victims had at last decided to speak up and fight for justice. The underlying fact all around the world and especially so in Ghana is that a large number of sexually assaulted people do not report the assault.  The question is what is the reason why people chose to keep such traumatic experiences to themselves and not to seek justice and support from outside?.

In Ghana, the general reaction when cases of sexual assault are brought to the limelight has been quite the same and nearly predictable. Regardless of the gender of the victim comments such as “Oh the boy is a bad boy. She tried to blackmail him and came out when she couldn’t get any money off him. What did she go to do there? “Why was she wearing those clothes”. The default reaction is often that of victim blaming and shaming. What a disgrace they’ve caused their family. How dare they speak up. Let’s get her to withdraw her testimony.Socio-cultural traditions more often than not pour scorn on the victims of sexual violence. There seems to be a general believe in our society that sexual assault victims incite such violence on to themselves by their actions. As such the victims, instead of speaking up, seem to rather internalize the situation blaming themselves for the act. Again, there is a belief that young women and girls who reveal a history of sexual violence will undermine their chances of marriage and since marriage is seen as the ultimate for a woman in most Ghanaian communities, this cannot be allowed to happen. The general consensus though is that admitting that one has been a victim of sexual violence brings shame unto themselves and their family. As such both boys and girls are implicitly and at times expressly encouraged to keep quiet.

The focus has completely shifted from the person who experiences such trauma i.e. their psychological and physical wellbeing to what the society will think. Such that the victim now has to contend with maintaining the honor and repute of others at times even including the abusers and not their own wellbeing. There have been instances where even brave victims who speak up are shut down. Again, this is a result of the fabric of the makeup of our communities where grownups are never wrong and people with money or some sort of power can do no wrong.  Even when people muster the courage to speak out, there is a woeful lack of services and support systems to give them the help they will need. The media most often fails to conceal the personalities of such victims but rather throws them into the spotlight and makes them a focus often going further to dig out all the juicy details of their lives as if to say that If they do not have a squeaky clean past then they are not worthy to cry victim in any circumstance.

These socially fueled culture of silence has not only created a safe haven for perpetrators, who have been able to avoid punishment but victims are left feeling confused and unsupported, often leading to disengagement from life and withdrawal from the social fabric of the communities they dwell. To end these damaging effects of silencing, it is not only important to have channels for people to report sexual violence it is also crucial to ensure that victims feel heard, their concerns validated, and their complaints taken seriously. They should be assured that action will be taken to hold culprits accountable and to prevent such cases from happening again.

Indeed, there are instances where supposed victims fake sexual assault for their own personal gain. Yet, these instances are a minute fraction of the assault cases that occur. To deter a majority of people from reporting and to take a stance that they may be lying seeks to have a majority bear the brunt of the actions of an insignificant few. For the culture to change, the general attitude of a majority of the people must change. We must imagine ourselves encountering such an abuse and determine what support or reaction we would want to elicit from our loved ones and then most importantly we must introspect and ask ourselves what our reactions have been when we hear of such news. If our reactions have not been what we would want others’ reactions to be if we were the victim, then we must choose consciously to do unto others. We cannot play the proverbial ostrich burying our heads in the sand while expecting that by some magical act, the culture will change, society will become more humane and sexual assault victims will suddenly garner courage and start speaking out. Sexual abuse is heinous but what will be even more heinous and tragic is if we continue the tradition of silencing the victim. The give it to God pot must stop brewing silence and it must stop with us.