Addressing Cyber Violence and Harassment

Orange Day – a day to take action to raise awareness and prevent violence against women and girls”, is celebrated on 25th of the month, according to UN Women. July 2017’s Orange Day Action Theme was cyber violence against women.

To mark the day, UN Women hosted a panel moderated by Emily Mahaney, Senior Editor at Glamour Magazine. Panelists were Feminista Jones, a writer, activist, survivor of cyber violence, and creator of the hashtag #YouOKSis; Emily May, Co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!; and Jamia Wilson, Press Executive Director and Publisher at CUNY Feminist.

Research published this year showed that in the US:

  • 70% of US adults surveyed who identify as women say that “online harassment is a ‘major problem’”, compared to 54% of those surveyed who identify as men.
  • 41% of American adults said that they have experienced some form of online harassment, which the survey defined as “offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, or harassment over a sustained period of time”.
  • Even though both sexes reported experiencing cyber violence, women reported a worse experience: 34% of them experienced their latest incident as “extremely” or “very” upsetting, versus 16% of men reporting the same.

At its core, the internet is another public space where women can experience forms of violence or harassment, similar to catcalling on the street or inappropriate touching on a subway. To improve the online experience for all, Jamia Wilson suggested that online etiquette should be taught early on, both at schools and at home, and that adults should instruct children how to behave respectfully online, just as they teach children how to behave in public spaces

Emily Mahaney asked the panelists perhaps the most burning question we all have about cyberviolence and harassment: who perpetrates these acts of cyber violence, and what is their motivation? 

Feminsta Jones answered that the perpetrators are usually men who feel injured by women in some way, such as rejection from a woman in their lives or having been cheated on by their partners, and harassing women online is a way for them to channel their resentment. In terms of motivation, all panelists mentioned two things: power and dominance. May mentioned that it’s hard to pinpoint a perpetrator’s identity exactly, but that their real identity is not as important as the identity they assume online, which is usually that of a white, cisgender, and heterosexual man.

It might be logical to think that most perpetrators of cyber violence and harassment will do so anonymously or using a fake identity, but Jones mentioned that she has been attacked by people using their real pictures and names.

Although the violence and harassment are ‘virtual’, the consequences are very real. Being a victim of harassment and cyber violence can cause serious psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Jones, for example, shared that she suffers from agoraphobia after experiencing cyber violence and harassment.

Cyber violence and harassment can indeed affect the victim’s life offline, especially when threats include rape or physical violence. Victims may feel the need to change their phone numbers and address, as well as becoming wary of being online again. Because consequences can impact a person’s offline life, Wilson talked about the importance of therapy for victims in their recovery process.

On how to help victims, May suggested that if we see someone suffering cyber violence or harassment, we should acknowledge the victim, whether through a comment or private message, even if that person is a stranger to us. To end the panel, Mahaney asked the panelists to identify one positive thing we can all do change this environment of cyber violence and harassment and to support each other. Wilson encourages us to speak up and share our stories if we have been a victim ourselves. May encourages us to remember that there are people out there that have your back and don’t forget to have the backs of others. Jones’ advice was simple but powerful: ask people if they’re ok.

If you have experienced some form of cyber violence and/or harassment – or know someone who has – visit iheartmob.org for help and support.

Behind the Silence of Stillbirth

A stillbirth is the death of a baby within a pregnant body after twenty weeks of pregnancy. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2.6 million stillbirths occurred in 2015. Those living in the Global South are the most at risk, but in countries around the world the numbers remain too high – 15 babies each day are stillborn or die within a month of birth in the UK, with black and Asian babies being the most at risk, and in 46% of these cases the causes are unknown.

This being said, this phenomenon is still very rarely talked about, and so the grief and suffering of many victims goes unnoticed. I think it’s important to raise awareness, to encourage others not to idealise pregnancy, to highlight the importance of protecting one’s body and mind and to support each other in these painful but ‘part-of-life’ moments.

I am a French Afro-descendant woman living in Berlin where I have been entitled to care and support from the moment I discovered I was pregnant to the funeral of my baby girl. The pro-natalist policies in Germany gave me the choice to keep my child and to plan accordingly. I have had monthly ultrasound scans, extra vitamins, and an incredible community of mothers and expecting mothers to answer my many questions and provide me with mental support. However, even in the best conditions, my baby died inside my womb for unknown reasons except the fact that life is not – as pregnancy is not – a straight forward process.

I have been amazed to see that sharing my personal story has enabled other women to openly talk about their experiences. However, I have also faced insensitive comments and people asking me or other women without a child for the reason of their child’s death. I often wondering about the intention behind these kinds of comments, although I am sure they cannot be intended to help the suffering mothers feel more at peace.

Grieving mothers have to navigate between hormonal changes, body (re)transformation and loss of identity. Victims are often unable to bear the extra pain that comes from others’ inability to deal with the loss, including family and friends. It is important to find a good balance between support and space to let the victim heal in her very personal way from the loss of a part of herself.

Women react in different ways to stillbirth but many feel they have violently lost a part of themselves in the process. Being pregnant can be a traumatic experience – talking from my personal experience, throwing up and being exhausted is a difficult adventure. Worse than the extreme body transformation of pregnancy, though, is the need to deliver a breathless baby’s body. It took me weeks to understand that my daughter was not within me anymore. A grieving mother isn’t just a woman after losing her baby. She is a broken women, and she needs time to heal.

My relatives have been extremely affected by the loss of this child and have been incredibly supportive. They have included YunNan, my first child, in our family. She is daughter, a niece, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter, and she alwasy will be.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in losing a child. It is essential to tell women who have experienced stillbirth that they are victims, to tell our blinded society that stillbirth occurs more than we think, and to tell those who want to help that there ways for them bring about positive change for grieving parents.

The number of stillbirths declined by only 19% between 2000 and 2015. Ignoring stillbirth is an issue that leads to shocked, grieving parents and incomprehension among wider society, and so society at large must change. Stillbirth is part of a bigger picture framed by sexism, racism and classism. It is our duty to all, women and men included, to care for each other, to collaborate and to strive together to break the silence that surrounds stillbirth. 

The featured image of this post was drawn by my brother in honour and memory of YunNan, my stillbirth baby girl.

Repairing the Mind-Body Connection After Trauma

 “Yoga can build back people’s ability to slow down in reacting to stress, to re-build the connection with their bodies, and engage in self-care.”
– Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality

A recent report from Georgetown Law revealed a new avenue of trauma-informed treatment for adolescent girls. Rebecca Epstein, Executive Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and current yoga teacher, co-authored the report alongside Thalia González, Associate Professor at Occidental College. The report explores the potential of somatic interventions to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of girls who have experienced trauma. Somatic interventions – meaning interventions that focus on the connection between the participant’s mind and body – are not new, but this research is showing new levels of promise for adolescent girls and young women.

“Trauma is part of many marginalized girls’ lives,” Epstein stated in a recent interview. “Across the board, girls have experienced every form of trauma studied at a higher rate than boys…yoga is one way to try to repair the mind-body connection.” Somatic interventions are made up of three core components: mindfulness, regulated breathing, and physical poses.

Epstein and González specify that, to be effective, somatic interventions targeting girls who have experienced trauma need to be trauma-informed, gender-responsive, and culturally competent. The teachers must pay attention to girls’ specific needs, provide options and choices, and acknowledge that different cultural experiences may affect a girl’s reaction to somatic interventions and the practices involved therein.

A stand-out participant named Rocsana exemplifies how somatic interventions, specifically yoga, can help girls heal. In a phone interview, she described how yoga taught her to be calm, to be more patient with her children, and how to think before she reacts. She practices yoga at home with her children, along with breathing and mindfulness exercises, and states that the techniques helped her leave an abusive relationship.

Now a yoga teacher herself in her own community, Rocsana aims to empower other girls through the methods she learned from the California-based Art of Yoga Project.

“The girls that I teach are young girls and they’re mostly Latina and African American. I want them to feel strong and powerful. I want them to feel good about themselves.”

A key element of somatic interventions is an appreciation of girls’ intersecting identities and individualized experiences. One of the report’s key recommendations reads, “Account for differences in types of trauma experienced by girls based on their intersectional identity.” Many holistic approaches to girl-centered programming acknowledge that girls’ experiences are directly related to the various, and often multiple, types of oppression and discrimination they face.

As Epstein describes, girls’ overlapping identities – be them race, gender, sexual identity, or others – affect how they experience trauma and how they are treated if they should choose to disclose or report their experience. “Women of color are responded to differently when they experience trauma…they are often ignored or blamed for their trauma.” Epstein underscores that girls of color are often seen as complicit in their trauma or are blamed for their experience.

Trauma-informed somatic interventions that acknowledge and address intersectionality allow girls to reclaim their agency, their sense of choice, and their ability to separate the trauma from their self-worth, dignity, and potential.

The use of somatic interventions signals an advanced appreciation for girls’ holistic wellbeing. As evinced by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, childhood trauma can lead to long-term mental and physical health effects. These include depression, suicidal tendencies, heart disease, and cancer.

Epstein and González see great potential in using somatic interventions to mitigate these effects and interrupt the inter-generational cycle of violence. “While there has not yet been a mainstream connection between the body and the mind and trauma and the body,” says González, “we see this report as a critical next step in advancing policies and practices aimed at providing system-involved girls with the foundation for a healthy and successful future.”

Perhaps this report will help those in the adolescent girl field make the connection and envision new, holistic ways to help girls improve their wellbeing.

We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Mental Health Month is celebrated in May here in the United States, but mental health is something we should be talking about all year round. This year’s World Health Day took place on April 7th and focused on the important issue of depression. On this occasion, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a one year campaign titled “Depression: let’s talk”.

Depression and other mental health conditions can, at their worst, lead to suicide. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), suicide “is the second-leading cause of death among adolescent girls” worldwide. The prevalence of both depressive and anxiety disorders is also higher among women than men around the world.

I am one of those women who struggles with mental health. I visited a psychologist for the first time when I was just 8 years old, as my generalized and social anxiety issues began to develop. I am now 23, and anxiety is still something I struggle with on a practically daily-basis, despite now going to therapy and taking medication.

But for most of the 16 years I’ve lived with anxiety, I’ve struggled mostly alone, in silence, without understanding well what was happening in my own brain – a reality unfortunately too common for most people who struggle with some type of mental disorder. The WHO states that even in developed countries, 50% of people who suffer from depression don’t get treatment for their disorder. Governments also lack investment in mental health: just 3% of their budgets worldwide go to mental health services.

A big misconception about mental health issues is that they are strictly in a person’s mind and don’t make them physically sick – but that is far from true. During a panic attack for example, I feel extremely nauseous, I can’t eat even if I’m hungry, my muscles become tense, and I get terrible headaches. Mental health issues are never a person’s choice – they are disorders, and can affect anyone, at any age, anywhere in the world.

Anxiety and depressive disorders are not simply being stressed or sad. They manifest themselves even when life is going well. My worst panic attack ever happened when I was in a car with my parents going on a trip, and my most recent one, when I was riding the same train I’d ridden for months going to work. These episodes can happen even without a logical reason for my body’s reaction, and that’s what makes mental health issues so hard to live with.

Mental health should be prioritized just as much as physical health – after all, isn’t the brain part of our bodies too? It’s a clichéd phrase, but one I’ve learned, the hard way, to be true: self-care isn’t selfish. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding facing my anxiety issues, thinking that if I focused my energy on helping others, I’d be “cured” somehow. Even though I still love helping others, I’ve learned that I can’t do that unless I help myself and allow myself to be helped.

I still have a long road ahead of me learning how to take care of myself, beginning a new therapy, and getting a more definitive diagnosis. But taking this first step of acknowledging that I do have mental health issues that are deeply affecting my life, breaking my silence about it, and reaching out for help is a good place to start the life-long road of recovery.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, especially suicidal thoughts or actions, or know someone who might be, please do not hesitate in reaching out for help. If you live in the United States you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), Mental Health America, and NAMI for help and resources.

How Martial Arts Helped Me Get Back on My Feet

Content note: this post contains depictions of physical assault 

After being attacked on my way home, I decided to start training in martial arts. I wanted to become stronger both physically and mentally, and eventually, I found my way to the Korean martial art of taekwondo. Today, the mental tools taekwondo has given me help me out in all areas of life.

In my twenties, I was attacked on my way home after a late shift at work. A man followed me and forced his way into the building where I lived. Luckily, he didn’t have a weapon, and I managed to get out of his grip and scream for help. Even though he ran off when he heard people approaching, I was deeply shaken. What if there wouldn’t have been anyone around?

I felt so helpless.

The man who had attacked me wasn’t big – around my height. But when he grabbed me, it was like one of those nightmares where your muscles stop working. I was paralyzed by the thought that he might hurt me. I had never been hit by anyone, never hit anyone myself. I didn’t know what to do.

Later, I became angry. How come I had to be the one to take an expensive cab home when working late? To pop one of my headphones out when going for a late run? To not go through dark allies or choose certain clothes? I still pop one headphone out today, and it still makes me angry.

When the nightmares wouldn’t stop after the attack, it was time to do something. I decided that I wanted to find out, in a controlled environment, what it felt like to be hit, kicked – and to respond. To hit back, to take a blow and get back up. Physically, nothing might have happened, but mentally, I had changed: I realized that my body, potentially, wasn’t mine at all but someone else’s to handle as they wished.

Let’s stop here for a moment and clear one thing up: martial arts don’t turn you into an aggressive fighter. Martial arts are about self-control, physical health and mental health – not about being stupid and getting into situations you can’t control. If ever you are attacked, turn around and run. This is what any good trainer would recommend.

I found a kickboxing club at university. This was in the south of Europe about ten years ago, and the club reeked of testosterone. I was put in the ring straight away, with the only other girl in the room – and got beaten up. It’s not how it’s supposed to happen. This was an excellent example of a BAD club, where the trainers and my club mates weren’t doing what they are supposed to – making sure nobody’s attacked if they can’t defend themselves.

Afterwards, I was hurting everywhere and holding back tears of frustration. One of the guys walked up to me and looked me over: my long blonde hair and pink training shirt. “Shouldn’t you be doing ballet?”, he asked. I probably have that comment to thank for the fact that I never gave up fighting – I just moved on to a better club.

A few years later, I discovered taekwondo. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that, like many martial arts, is just as much a way of life as a way to get fit. To succeed in taekwondo, there is only one opponent you have to beat: yourself.

You need to accept your limits and turn them into advantages.

You need to accept failure and see it as learning: another step towards your goal.

You need to accept pain (in a healthy and controlled way), and you will learn that you can endure more than you think.

Today, I have trained in taekwondo for five years. I am stronger both physically and mentally.  I’ve found friends for life and gotten the courage to face situations that make me uncomfortable, not only in the dojang but also outside of it. I know that I can fail, hurt, fall – and get back up on my feet. This makes me feel strong, empowered. I’m a fighter, and I’m immensely proud of it.

Still today, there are stereotypes about women who fight. Why? It might change your world, and if not, it will at least make you stronger. Would you dare to try?

Cover photo credit: Jason Briscoe, Unsplash 

Postpartum Depression: the Danger of ‘Bad Mother’ Stigma

I felt so trapped, like I had a made a huge mistake in having my child.

It’s heart-wrenching to imagine any mother having to say these words about her own child merely days after giving birth. But while interviewing Serena*, a young, resilient, postpartum depression (PPD) survivor last year, I was taken by surprise by this phrase.

Serena’s story about her struggles as a mother suffering from PPD were poignant. From difficulties getting out bed and taking care of herself, to a severe emotional disconnection from her own child and family, Serena suffered for weeks after giving birth to her first child. She felt unsupported and, after hearing accounts of mothers who were enjoying motherhood, she soon labeled herself a “bad mom” which caused her depression to deepen further.

It was not until she found a support group with other women going through similar struggles that she regained her strength and spirits. In the peer group, she found solace in knowing she wasn’t alone and that she was not indeed, a bad mother. The women who Serena interacted with in the group shared and learned techniques for overcoming their PPD and Serena benefitted and ultimately gained her life back. She no longer labels herself a “bad mom” and feels free to express some of the real difficulties she faced while transitioning into motherhood.

Serena’s experience is more common than you might imagine. 1 in 7 women are said to suffer from symptoms of PPD – depression that occurs after childbirth. Unlike Serena, however, only 15% of them ever get care. This leaves millions of women without treatment or support for a disorder that cripples them and plagues their lives. While talking to Serena, I often found myself wondering about how much more manageable PPD would have been for her had she been able to express her emotions and feelings. But due to the fear of being stigmatized for what seem like “unusual thoughts”, Serena suffered in silence for weeks.

The problem with this stigma is that it originates very early on. I can distinctly recall being taught that motherhood is a blessing. With media, social networks and familial conversations, I, along with countless other women, grew up with a narrative that portrays motherhood as a natural bonding process. Rarely, until recently, did I consider the pressures associated with not being able to fill the expectations of being a “good” mother. Not until I talked to Serena a few months ago did I realize how the stereotypes lead to a stigmatization, which makes PPD, other postpartum mood disorders and often even the everyday tasks of motherhood difficult to talk about.

As I conversed with more mothers who had suffered from postpartum mood disorders, each one of their experiences cut deeper than the last. Every woman mentioned having to bottle up her emotions and recalled blaming her own self. Instead of acknowledging their likely genetic predispositions or the imbalance of hormones as the real causes, they pointed fingers at their own characters, which worsened their condition.

As a society, it is time for us to reduce the stigma and turn the narrative of constant perfect motherhood around, so that women can feel unafraid to talk about the very real disorders that affect their lives. So that, on an even broader level, we can liberate women and free them from the chains of unrealistic standards. This is a goal that we can all partake in. We can read up on PPD, share our knowledge with others, and often simply offer a listening ear to mothers who need it. Most importantly, we can donate to organizations who are already making strides in a positive direction (Postpartum Progress, Postpartum Support International).

Being a mom is not easy and it’s time we portray this reality. Going forward, my hope is that our combined efforts can raise awareness and bring PPD to the forefront of care. Implementing simple steps can provide an outlet for every woman to open up and share her pain, so that she does not have to suffer for as long as Serena did.

*name has been changed for confidentiality purposes

Photo Credit: Bridget Coila, Flickr