Sasha Lee Olivier is a survivor of gender-based violence (Listen: podcast)

 

Azania Mosaka chats to Sasha Lee Olivier, our dynamic and passionate reigning Miss South Africa. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she is driving the #ItsNotYourFault initiative to overcome the fear that prevents survivors of gender-based violence from speaking out.

When she was crowned Miss South Africa in 2019, 26-year-old Sasha Lee Olivier made it clear that she would use her reign to give a voice to girls, boys, women, and men who are victims of abuse and gender-based violence (GBV). This work is very close to her heart and that’s because she herself is a survivor of sexual abuse.

Discovery shares her story as part of ongoing efforts to support survivors of gender-based violence through the #DiscoverYourVoice campaign.

This campaign includes:

  • Three incredible interviews done by Azania Mosaka for the Discover Healthier podcast series. Azania speaks to five passionate and dynamic women who are fully immersed in shedding light on gender-based violence, and bringing support to those who experience this kind of crime.
  • A basket of holistic support designed for Discovery Health Medical Scheme members, which includes immediate and confidential trauma and scheme support, linked to Discovery’s emergency services and trauma support benefits.

Listen to Azania’s chat with Sasha-Lee now and #DiscoverYourVoice

You can listen to the other podcasts in this series here:

  • Azania interviews Mara Glennie who started the TEARS Foundation and Service Executive at Discovery Health Raffaella Ruttell about #DiscoverYourVoice and giving Discovery Health Medical Scheme members who experience gender-based violence access to immediate and confidential trauma support and scheme benefits.
  • Azania chats to attorney Lindsay Henson (from Lawyers against Abuse) and trauma counsellor Lana Snoyman to explore the rights, support and legal remedies available to survivors of gender-based violence.

Here’s are some key insights from Sasha-Lee ’s interview with Azania

Sasha-Lee ’s Miss South Africa profile includes the following excerpt:

“I endured years of sexual assault at the hands of an adult, and when I told the grownups around me about what was happening to me, nobody believed me. It is why I have devoted this year of my reign to making those abused know that they are not responsible for their abuse.”

“Taking over the Miss South Africa title means that I am able to continue working to help women who, like me, have been sexually abused.”

  • How did this ordeal shape your life?

The ordeal taught me that everything you experience in your life can be used in some way. But how it will be used is a decision you make. Adversity can breed success, but that’s only if we allow it to. Now, I’m not going to say that I’ve always been this understanding, I haven’t always seen the bigger picture. This has been a painful process. As much as seven-year-old Sasha was being sexually abused, she also had this idea that she would live up to the meaning of her name: ‘the defender of mankind’. And there was so much power in that moment and in that decision that I made. So that, plus not being believed when I told people about the abuse, led me to my purpose. Titles aside, every decision in my life has been in service of protecting those who were most vulnerable. I advocate for child protection and I actively work towards curating safe spaces for people who have survived abuse.

  • Have you healed from your experience of abuse?

I’m healing. This is an ongoing process. And I think it starts with breaking the chains of silence, shame, and fear. It starts by speaking out. Then it gets to the next stage, I think, which is forgiveness. I’ve come to understand that is a decision that you make daily. It’s not absolute. There are days where I do get triggered and there is no forgiveness in sight, but I carry on and I press on anyway.

I recognise just how lucky I am to have survived not only the abuse but also the aftermath of the trauma – which in my experience was actually more difficult to deal with. Everyone has their own experience. But the mental illness effects of abuse can be severe. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2014. For me, it resulted in a severe case of memory loss for me, about two years. Abuse that occurs in childhood years can cause the brain to respond with a survival adaptation that supresses memory to deal with the trauma. For me, this happened at a very difficult time because I was in university. I was then declared unfit to write my exams and I felt hopeless. I didn’t only lose my childhood, but the abuse took away pieces of my early adult life too. It was really hard for me, and I was really hard on myself at the time. So, there was a lot of self-forgiveness later needed, for being so hard on myself and not really understanding mental illness was at the time.

  • Many survivors of abuse feel a deep sense of shame and fear. Has it been hard speaking out about your experience of the trauma of sexual abuse?

Yes, it has been. I find that we are continuously silenced and that causes a high degree of secondary trauma. We’re silenced through well-intended questions like: “What you were wearing when the abuse took place?” or “Why did it take so long for you to speak out?” Then, there is secondary trauma when we engage with the legal system, where you find that the perpetrator is innocent until proven guilty and the survivor is lying until proven otherwise, in my experience. I feel we have a very perpetrator-centric system where everything is left up to us to prove what had happened.

In many ways, the legal system and policy – especially when it comes to protecting children – is very progressive in our country. But there’s a disconnect between what should happen and what happens on the ground, not only at an institutional level but also in terms of society. People who are meant to be holding the perpetrator accountable could still hold the same bias that perpetuates violence against women. Often, it takes a huge uproar to create pressure to hold the person accountable.

And we live in a society that breeds perpetrators. A lot of people are looking to government in order to make the change and very little people are actually introspecting. And that is what actually matters if anything is going to change. The issue, I find, is actually to be the one of cognitive dissonance among men (where someone holds two or more contradicting beliefs). So, a man may think that rape is a problem, but then he may also think that it’s not a male issue. And then, on top of that, we have the issue of language, which we’ve seen often in the media is one that speaks of women who get raped and not of men who rape them and, in that, they appropriate blame and make the sole focus women – when it in fact should be on men.

  • You’re a gender activist. As part of your reign, your Beauty with Purpose campaign includes the #ItsNotYourFault campaign. Can you tell us about that?

Our rape comfort pack aims to celebrate those who have survived sexual assault. The most important thing for survivors to understand is that it is not their fault. Our focus is on bringing a source of dignity to the survivor when they need it most. It’s a comfort pack that constitutes a couple of the health and sanitary items that they would need in the moment when their statement is taken and some sugar (snacks), just to get them through that moment in which there is often a high degree of secondary trauma when they state what actually occurred. Women are disproportionately affected by the issue of sexual assault and the girl child is the most vulnerable. But the issue of rape transcends gender and age. Unfortunately, children get raped and we have different rape comfort packs to meet differing needs.

  • If you want to get involved in Sasha-Lee Olivier’s #ItsNotYourFault cause go here, and you can contribute R120 towards a rape comfort pack.
  • Why does sharing your personal experience of abuse mean so much to you?

I understand that my presence on this podcast platform and as the reigning Miss South Africa is a future reimagined for survivors of abuse like me. My speaking out will hopefully help others to find the strength to do so too. And I see this happening in messages people send to me on social media. It’s not always about a loud roar, being so public and vocal about having experienced abuse. Rather, it’s about the quiet acknowledgment that it actually happened and going out and seeking help. Not many have the strength to go out and share their story. However, I think there’s still so much strength in admitting that to yourself that, although at one point you were vulnerable and someone took advantage of that, it’s not your fault. There’s so much power in that.

  • Why has it been important to that survivors of gender-based violence know that it’s not your fault?

The first moment of healing is to understand that it was not your fault, that you had no influence over the person who inflicted harm on you. This was something that resonated strongly with when I came across it and I am sure that is something I share with other survivors. We often feel like we could have done something to prevent what happened to us. I’d say this stems from society’s view of victims of abuse.

Important contact details for victims of gender-based violence

Discovery Health Medical Scheme members can call 0860 999 911 to access Discovery’s emergency services and trauma support benefits.

Other important numbers:

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