Follow the light

By Megan Nobert

Megan Nobert is a Canadian-born lawyer and humanitarian aid worker. She is currently the Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, the first global NGO created to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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Source: Pixabay.com, Creative Commons CC0

Expectations are a strange, terrifying and exhilarating thing.

Two years ago, broken, damaged and in tears, I made the decision to speak publicly about my experience with sexual violence while working in South Sudan. There is a distinct chance that I was not quite prepared to speak publicly, barely grappling with the experience myself and having just told my family about the rape. Perhaps I would never have been prepared for the changes that this decision would bring.

Speaking to the media exposed me in a number of ways. It has meant that every time I walk into a room now, there is a significant chance that someone knows the details of the most intimate moment in my life. It means that dating is now a minefield. And it means that on any given day – at any meeting, party or event – another humanitarian will pull me to the side to tell me about their own experience with sexual violence. Hundreds of humanitarians who are survivors of sexual violence have reached out to me in the last two years, in every format possible. I hold the experiences of these people in the deepest parts of my body.

Carrying the stories of so many other survivors of sexual violence could have easily led me down dark paths. I barely held myself back from harm in the months after my rape – in large part motivated by wanting to escape my colleagues’ treatment of me during those moments of despair and sadness. Without an excellent therapist and some phenomenal friends I might not have made it through those first few months alive.

It might have been stubbornness or a small light or an innate part of me that refused to give up. Whatever it was, somehow, the knowledge that so many others are experiencing emotions and pain similar to my own led me to a decision that became a moment of deep—perhaps the deepest—healing: starting Report the Abuse.

Report the Abuse may be born of my own experience with sexual violence, but it represents something much bigger than that one moment. It represents the community of humanitarians who have been harassed, made to feel unsafe in their workplaces or sexually assaulted by those they should have been able to trust. It was a community to bring together those quiet and isolated voices. 

When I started Report the Abuse, I was not sure where it would go or how we might affect change. My first goal was to provide a platform for survivors to speak about their own experiences. My second goal was to make sure that other humanitarians did not have to suffer in the way that others and I were. Lofty goals, perhaps, but seeing them come to life in surprising and profound ways still shakes me to the core.

The voices of humanitarians who are experiencing sexual violence is growing. The first data on the issue was published by Report the Abuse last year, followed by the publications of others who began collecting data, deepening our footsteps. The breadth of the advocacy still surprises me, but every opportunity to highlight the experiences of our community further strengthens the collective resolve to make it stop – not next week or next year but today.

When I began to look at how humanitarian organisations were addressing this problem, I expected pushback. I expected anger and recrimination. I expected denial and disappointment. I never expected opened doors, vulnerability and a desire to do better.

Perhaps there is something in the timing to raising this issue. Perhaps it is the growing desire to address uncomfortable issues. Perhaps it is the media attention. Many survivors have stated that my speaking openly about my own experience has contributed to the movement and their own breakthroughs; the very idea of being such a catalyst makes my naturally quiet personality shiver, but I appreciate their kind words.

Whatever the answer or reason, we should all be encouraged by the progress the humanitarian community is making to advance, raise awareness and engage on the issue of sexual violence within and against our own people. I never, even in my wildest dreams, thought this was possible. The key though is making sure this progress leads to real sustained change, action, and a culture where incidents of sexual violence are not allowed to occur. This will require us all participating, raising our voices, and banding together. It will be long hard work, but the effort will be worth it. 

Out of every dark moment there comes opportunity. Starting Report the Abuse was the light to come out of the darkness of my rape. While the work on the issue and support given to survivors has made the most difficult parts worth it, there have been sacrifices. This is a hard path to travel and one that can feel lonely at times. More frequently than should be possible, the knowledge that another humanitarian has experienced sexual violence passes through my inbox. These incidents weigh heavily on my mind, and bringing them to life, seeking justice and an end to the violence is necessary. I want them—and all those not yet ready to come forward—to know they are not alone.

Life is filled with a series of twists and turns, which take us down paths we never expected. Even in the deepest dark, there is light. Follow the light. Who knows where it might lead you.

Read our post Sea Change to learn more about the people and institutions leading the movement for humanitarian well-being and the need for transparency, accountability and support.

Take action by reporting your experience, creating change in your workplace, and supporting advocacy efforts. Report the Abuse is no longer accepting donations.

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