The Trauma We Carry

Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed or sitting on a bus or just letting my legs dangle over the edge of the couch, I feel this warm and tingly sensation on the bottom of my feet – and I wonder if I’m feeling the warmth of the flames from the fires that burned my ancestors as witches.

I run my fingers on the perfect, flawless skin of my daughter’s cheek. She is sleeping, soundly, and for now, all her skin knows is the touch of love. All her body knows is affection, appreciation, being cherished. As my fingers trace the chubby curve of her cheek, I wonder: does your skin remember the strikes and punches that your ancestors have had to endure? I wonder if our bodies carry the memory of the trauma of generations past.

These past few weeks have been emotional torture for many women – because many of us have had to relive events we’d rather never have to think about again.

Our bodies carry memories of trauma. Of unwanted touches and gropes. Of someone grabbing us in the dark and the first thought in our mind being “will he rape me or kill me?”. Of strikes, punches, hits, kicks. Bruises that are no longer visible to the eye are still there underneath the skin. They are always there.

I remember the shortcut through a small park from the bus to my apartment that I used to always take over a decade ago – until something happened one night when I was walking home. After that, I took the longer, well lit route. I still avoid walking on paths or roads that aren’t clearly lit at night. And I didn’t say anything for a long long time – because I was sure no one would believe me.

I’ve been reading and hearing the stories of women from all over, and it has made me so sad, because I’ve realized our bodies are like fields of war. Hurting and aching from things that have happened, and things we feared would happen. And we don’t only feel the pain we’ve experienced, but that of others too. Our mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers. Friends and neighbors. Strangers online who are recounting stories eerily similar to our own.

We don’t know each other, but our lives are still impacted by the same violent and misogynistic structures and patriarchal powers that have normalized this kind of behavior throughout history. The structures and powers that for a very long time, allowed violence against women to take place in daylight, and then inside the home because it was a “private matter”, and then in marriage because a married woman has no right to say no to her husband, and then on the streets and nightclubs and dorm rooms because “boys will be boys”, and then in the military because “women should know what to expect if they join the army”.

While the laws may have changed, attitudes clearly haven’t – and we are still expected to carry our trauma in secrecy and in silence and simply just expect it, as if this is something we’ve signed up for, as people daring to exist and take space as females in this world.

And now, in 2018, we watch – not even in disbelief, because it has happened so many times before – how this kind of behavior is still normalized and brushed aside. And just like when #MeToo took off, people seem to be surprised by the magnitude of this problem. Surprised to see their family members, friends, neighbors, come forward with painful stories and memories of sexual assault and violence. And I wonder how long it will take before this no longer surprises us – before we actually recognize that this isn’t something abnormal or out of order. This is the order. It has been the norm throughout history.

For everyone reliving their own trauma right now – I am so sorry for you. I am so sorry for us. I am sorry we have to keep dragging our most painful encounters and memories to daylight over and over and over again for the sake of demanding a society that does not condone and normalize violence and sexual assault against women. I am sorry we have to keep reliving the trauma and pain of our ancestors – just to have the right to live a life free of assault and violence.

I believe her, because I am her. The generations before me were her. Almost every single woman is her.

Will my daughter’s generation be the first whose feet won’t feel the fire anymore?

Documentary ‘The Uncondemned’ Shatters Stigma on Sexual Violence

The persistence of rape in conflict, from a moral standpoint, represents a regression. Humanity better stand back up on that front if it wants to survive as a species.” Dr. Justin Kabanga, rape psychologist (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

When Godelieve Mukasarasi first began working with female sexual assault survivors of the Rwandan genocide, she described them as “the living dead.” Beyond shock and grief, they had shut down in order to make it through alive. One woman, Serafina, explained, “[rape] is the wound that you can’t cure among all wounds that you ever had.

As the Founder of Solidarity for the Development of Widows and Orphans to Promote Self-Sufficiency and Livelihoods (SEVOTA), Godeliève works to bring women together to break the silence on the pervasive sexual assaults that occurred with impunity in Rwanda. Nothing would erase the horrific violence inflicted upon them, but anything close to closure was impossible without justice.

After the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, tribunal members reached out to Godeliève in the hopes of connecting with survivors. The testimony they heard allowed them to prosecute Jean-Paul Akayesu, under whose supervision Tutsis were systematically raped and murdered. His trial marked the first time in history that rape was prosecuted as a crime against humanity and also a crime of genocide.

The film The Uncondemned tells this remarkable story, following the international team of lawyers and activists that fought to bring Akayesu to justice and the brave women who came forward to testify against him. In honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, join Peace is Loud’s campaign to bring this film to colleges, universities and communities worldwide to strengthen support for survivors of sexual violence and torture.

Rape is a crime that feeds on silence, and it takes a rupture in the status quo to affect change. After the success of the Akayesu case, local Rwandan tribunals ruled that rape was a “category one” crime, in the same grouping as murder. This was a tremendous step forward, setting a lasting precedent for the severity of sexual assault.

The story of rape used as a weapon of war is sadly a universal one—but we’re working to make the story of justice for survivors a universal one too. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, described by UN officials as the “rape capital of the world”, we will be partnering with organizations working on the ground to bring The Uncondemned to safe houses for female survivors of sexual assault; and to mobile court judges and medical, law enforcement and legal experts to demonstrate effective, survivor-centered strategies for documenting and prosecuting rape on a local level. We’re particularly pleased to be working to integrate the film into a mandatory training for Congolese soldiers on gathering evidence in gender-based crimes.

The Uncondemned demonstrates unwaveringly that women feel the devastating impact of conflict the deepest, yet are underrepresented in peace talks. To reverse this trend, we’ll be working with global grassroots organizations who are looking for tools to help implement and localize UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which highlight the urgent need for women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Within the U.S., we’re working with universities and student groups to integrate The Uncondemned into classes and trainings that strengthen support to survivors of sexual violence and torture. We’ve developed film-accompanying discussion guides for law schools and medical schools which address the legal, medical and psychosocial aspects of sexual violence and present scenarios how to best respond to disclosures of sexual violence.

It is our hope that each screening of The Uncondemned will bring us one step closer to bringing justice and support for survivors of sexual assault and torture around the world. These crimes perpetuate as long as they are allowed to; it’s up to each of us to say, “no more”.

As for Godeliève, she’s still hosting her weekly SEVOTA meetings for survivors, including the three women featured in the film. “The fact that rape was taken into consideration in the prosecution of Akayesu [on screen] has had a worldwide impact on the issue of the rape of women”, she says. “In spite of being a rural woman with little means, I helped denounce injustice and fought for humanity”.

Please join us in bringing The Uncondemned to your campus or community. Learn more about the film, host a screening, and be a part of our global community.

 

A Men’s Issue

On Monday, December 7, Vital Voices hosted their annual Voices of Solidarity awards to honor five men “who have shown courage and compassion in advocating on behalf of women and girls in the United States and around the world.” The five honorees were Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former peacekeeper and diplomat; Gary Barker, founder of Promundo and global leader in engaging men to prevent violence against women; Sadou Lemankreo, a police officer and human rights defender in Cameroon; John Prendergast, activist and author working to support women survivors of conflict in Africa; and Tom Wilson, chairman and CEO of The Allstate Corporation.

The five honorees have impressive experience working to empower women and engage men to change their attitudes and behaviors towards women. They are rightly honored for their work and should be held as models for how men should act worldwide. But my thoughts on the event, and the issue of violence against women in general, can be summed up with six words from Cindy Dyer early in the night:

“Violence against women is a men’s issue” Cindy Dyer, Vice President of Human Rights, Vital Voices

When I looked around the room on Monday night, it was filled with an overwhelming majority of women. This gender imbalance has been the norm in my experience of attending similar events and herein lays the problem; women, who are victims and allies to victims of male violence, bravely come together while the perpetrators are disengaged from the conversation. This needs to change.

Violence against women stems from a daunting web of social norms, patriarchy, power dynamics, greed and injustice. For example, rape is used as a weapon of war and justice systems around the world drastically vary in their efficiency. With these larger structural barriers in the mix, can one individual make a difference in these issues? The answer is yes.

Dyer and Barker acknowledged the many men who would never hurt a woman and are champions for equality in the workplace and the home. However, when these men remain silent or refrain from participating in gender equality conversations, their actions (or inactions) have an impact. Speaking on her experiences with female victims, Dyer said that the “silence of male leaders speaks louder than women’s actions.” Men can be tremendous activists in the fight to end violence against women by actively taking a stance against the injustice.

So, to the men who believe in gender equality and justice, but are possibly unsure about how to engage in this conversation, I’m here to say: speak up! As a woman I welcome your voice to this discussion! A few conversation starters are below based on my own experiences and reported successes from the Vital Voices event this week.

Men, how can you get involved?

  • Ask questions: do you feel safe walking down the street? What resources are available for women who have experienced violence? Speak with the women in your life and ask about their experience.
  • Share news articles. Use the news as a way to start the conversation, learn about the nuances of the issues and take a stance.
  • Be a mentor. Young boys who witness violence growing up are more likely to exhibit those behaviors as an adult. As a positive influence in a young boy’s life, you can have a lasting change.

Women, how can we engage the men in our life?

  • Speak openly with the men you trust. For example, if you experience harassment in the workplace, debrief with a trusted male friend.
  • Invite your male friends to any conferences or events you attend on issues related to violence against women. Let’s get more men at the table.

As the 16 days of activism to end gender based violence comes to a close, I challenge you to speak with the people closest to you about the atrocities committed against women every day. It is time to end the silence surrounding violence against women and hold men accountable for their actions.

This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.

Photo Credit: Holly Curtis

 

When Time Stood Still: A Story of Courage, Survival, and Healing

Once in a while a book comes around that will have a profound impact on the lives of others. In a rare combination of personal reflection and professional insight, When Time Stood Still is a book that will not only assist in the healing of survivors, but also in public acknowledgement and understanding of childhood sexual abuse.

​The prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine in the world, as many victims are too young or vulnerable to disclose the experience. According to the Children Assessment Centre (CAC), an estimated 500,000 children were born in the US in 2014 will be sexually abused before they turn 18. Statistics available state that child rape occurs every two minutes and that 90 percent of molesters abuse children they know. Adult retrospective studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. This translates to more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse living in the US.

When Time Stood Still is a rare experience, not only for the authors, but for readers.

Survivors of abuse face numerous long-term negative effects, such as eating disorders, substances abuse disorders, sexual dysfunction, and most commonly experience guilt, shame, depression, relationship difficulties, and/or other types of dissociative disorders. Historically, there have been two broad approaches to the treatment of child sexual abuse: a victim advocacy/child welfare approach and a family-systems model. However, over the last two decades there have been a number of clinicians and researchers who have studied and developed new comprehensive treatment models. One such model is uniquely described in When A Time Stood Still.

When Time Stood Still gives readers a “living picture” of the use of art therapy in treating child sexual abuse in conjunction with professional therapeutic dialogue. With astonishing courage and bravery, Ziv Koren, a 36 year-old social worker, who was sexually abused by her uncle from ages 6 till 16, shares her personal story of recovery. The book lays out full narratives, including email exchanges between Ziv and Professor Rachel Lev-Wiesel, PhD., founder and head of the Graduate School of Creative Arts Therapies & the director of The Emili Sagol CAT Research Center at the University of Haifa.

While Ziv had never drawn in her life, she was encouraged to take much of the written material she had created over the past six years of therapy and translate them into art. In the first half of the book, readers are given the unique opportunity to not only see the drawings created – which at times can be very difficult to view – but to read the exchange between therapist and survivor as they try to determine what emotions and memories are exemplified within the art. Readers travel with Ziv as she moves from a state of dissociation and detachment from her past, to a full confrontation with her memories, as well as with her perpetrator.

The second part of the book presents and summarizes the current data on the uniqueness of childhood sexual abuse, including the five “traumagenic constructs” that Prof. Lev-Wiesel introduced to the field: Soul’s Homelessness, Captured in Time, Entrapped in Distorted Intimacy, Betrayal Entrapment, and Reenactment.

It is clear from the very first drawing that Ziv and Prof. Lev-Wiesel were embarking on an incredible journey of healing. Throughout their time together, Ziv created about 60 drawings, each reflecting various times of the abuse, unconscious symbols of pain, and integration of body and mind. Thanks to an intensive and continuous relationship with Prof. Lev-Wiesel, Ziv began to transform, healing the severe symptoms of her trauma. She became less addicted to pornography and ended S&M sexual relationships. She began to sleep for longer hours, and taking better care of her nutrition, hygiene and appearance. And after 20 years, Ziv was able to confront her uncle and see him clearly as a perpetrator and someone who hurt her.

When Time Stood Still is a rare experience, not only for the authors, but for readers. Insight into such personal trauma can, at times, feel overwhelming and too personal, as if someone’s personal diary was placed in your hands. It will not only assist professionals to better understand the uniqueness of child sexual abuse, the resulting trauma, and the healing process, but will give much to survivors and those seeking to learn more about abuse. Thanks to Ziv’s persistence and bravery, the unique tool of art was uncovered that will assist therapists working with victims of trauma. And it will no doubt, help countless of survivors.

The book can be purchased on Amazon in Paperback, Kindle, or E-Book.

 

Professor Rachel Lev-Wiesel, PhD. has been a therapist helping survivors of child sexual abuse for over 30 years, and has published 130 scientific papers and chapters on trauma, child abuse, sexual abuse, and the use of drawings for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. 

Ziv Koren, MA, is a social worker and art therapist at the unit for treatment of released prisoners in the Ministry of Social Welfare, in Israel.