She was assaulted. Now this 16-year-old French Scout is fighting for survivors of sexual violence

Zoé de Soyres first came to public attention in January when she delivered a powerful speech on sexual violence that drew on her own experience of assault to win a prestigious public speaking competition for French high school students.

The 16-year-old chose to go public with her story at the “Concours de plaidoiries des lycéens” in the city of Caen in northern France, after she decided that staying silent wasn’t helping her cope with what had happened to her. Zoé hoped it might inspire other survivors of assault to come forward with their stories too.

Zoé has been involved in Scouting since she was six years old and is currently a Venture Scout. As well as her studies at school and campaign against sexual violence, she is also helping migrants.

We spoke to Zoé on the phone from Europe to find out more about her life, and her campaign against sexual violence. Here is what she shared with us:

1. Can you tell us more about your experience as a Scout?

Zoe Scouting

I started Scouting at the age of six, joining the youngest section in France, the Beavers. I have always been in the same group since the beginning. It is a group called “Groupe Roland Pierre”, located near the French city of Étretat, and which is part of the National Scout Association “Scouts et Guides de France”. I have a lot of good memories from Scouting, but what I particularly like are the camaraderie, the camps, and especially the night activities. I love the festive, friendly and, at the same time, mysterious atmosphere.

2. In January, you shared your story of assault in front of more than 3,000 people. That was very brave. Why did you do it?

I wanted to participate in the public speaking contest for French high school students last year with a different topic. This year, I decided to try again, but this time, with the trauma of the sexual assault that I had suffered, the subject was clear to me. I had something that touched me personally to condemn, to fight. So, I took advantage of the event to spread my message to as many people as possible. To speak not only to the 3,000 people who were present in front of me, but the entire world.

3. What did you feel when you talked in public about such a terrible experience?

I would say the hardest thing was not to actually do it (the speech), but to make the decision to do it. First, choosing to tell my story, daring to reveal my secret was a huge struggle. I was a little afraid of people’s reaction because this subject remains a taboo in France. Were my relatives ready to hear my story? Would their feelings towards me change? I was constantly questioning myself before deciding "Ok, let’s go!". Then, I was really anxious to think that I would have to express myself in front of more than 3,000 people, without crying, without losing my composure. Finally, I had worked so hard on the text (she wrote the presentation by herself) that it had become almost natural, and it was easier.

4. How did your loved ones and people in general react?

Zoe Scouting

My close relatives reacted very well, they were all very kind, admiring, and I received a lot of support. I realised that I had made the right choice and it gave me a lot of strength. It was from there that I was able to look forward to the future with optimism and to get out of this infernal spiral of shame and disgust at myself. As for other people, they were generally shocked, because they mostly remembered my sexual assault rather than me winning the contest. Following the event, many strangers contacted me on social media to tell me that they had been through the same thing as me, and to talk about it together. I have even been stopped in the street by people who wanted to congratulate me for daring to speak on such a subject. I found it amazing because I was not prepared for it at all!

5. Do you think speaking openly helped you deal with what happened to you?

Yes, it allowed me to turn this terrible experience into something beneficial. In fact, talking about it openly can also help other people who are in the same situation as me. If I had kept this story for myself, I would never have been able to pick myself back up and it would eventually (have) destroyed me. Today, even though I still suffer, I feel liberated from a weight and it's encouraging to see people’s feedback. Some people come to me to say that they are in the same situation as me, that it’s been years and they have not dared to talk about it, but now, thanks to my story, they want to speak out. It was unexpected and very positive. It’s given me the momentum to go further in my fight.

6. During your speech, you mentioned some initiatives or actions that could be taken to raise awareness and fight the problem of sexual assault, can you tell us more about this?

In my opinion, the real problem comes from education. There needs to be more awareness in schools about the problem of sexual violence, which would be a huge step forward. Apart from a few sexual education classes where we only talked about contraception, we never mentioned this topic. It is necessary to educate (young people) about respect for each other’s bodies because many people are not aware of it. This subject remains taboo, so there is little opportunity to address it in the family framework and most young people are left to their own devices. By addressing everyone, in the same way, school is the best place to approach this subject.

7. In your opinion, how have the recent campaigns, #metoo worldwide or #balancetonporc, the equivalent in France, helped increase awareness about sexual assault?

I think these were good initiatives, these campaigns allowed many victims to speak about their experiences about which they’d been silent for a long time and to raise public awareness. However, I have not heard of any concrete actions from officials to set up laws and legislation. I do not know if society is ready to listen and act to deal with these issues. We do not realise it, but this terrible experience happens to more women than we imagine - about 20% of women in France are victims of sexual assault.

Zoe Scouting

8. In your case, what happened after the assault? Have you received the support you needed?

One of the main problems in a sexual assault case like mine is the role of French justice in dealing with investigations. Most of the time, the case lasts for years, and this is very hard psychologically for the victims. In addition, while the victim's word is often questioned, the abuser’s not so much. As a result, most victims do not even dare to complain and remain silent. Unfortunately, all this is a matter of mind-set and it will take years for the situation to change. Justice must act faster and shame must change sides.

9. What advice would you give to those who’ve suffered a sexual assault?

I think the most important thing is to talk about it, at least to one person. On one hand, sharing will help (survivors) overcome their suffering. They must not keep their story to themselves, because it can destroy them from the inside and that is a horrible feeling. This is one of the things my experience taught me, in these cases silence prolongs suffering. On the other hand, it will help, at a societal level, to change attitudes. Maybe one day we will be able to eliminate this problem if we act collectively. To rebuild yourself, speaking out is essential. If everyone gets together, we can get things done.

10. How did Scouting help you cope with what happened to you, and also be able to go on stage and tell such an experience in front of thousands of strangers? Did you find a strength in Scouting?

During all these years as a Scout, I have forged strong and sincere friendships. When I suffered this sexual assault, it was to these friends that I confided first. I really could count on them. I felt supported by my Scout leaders with whom I shared this ordeal and I thank them. I really felt the values ​​of mutual assistance that animate the Movement. And I think Scouting has given me a lot of confidence. I learned to act by myself, for myself and for general well-being. I understood that one should not remain a spectator in one's life. Everyone can act, everyone at their own level, to get things done. Even if it is very small things, you must dare to do your part. And all of this, put end to end, creates a collective force that has a huge impact.

Photos by David Commenchal / Le Mémorial de Caen

Video of Zoé de Soyres’ speech at the “Concours de plaidoiries des lycéens”, on 26 January 2018.
Source: France 3 Normandie (only in French).

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