April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and as an organization that extends healing care to survivors of torture, we at CVT are sadly all too familiar with the topic. Many of our clients have endured sexual torture, a weapon of war intended to wound, humiliate and silence individuals and communities.
Nearly half of CVT’s U.S.-based female clients have endured sexual violence. The actual number, however, is likely higher. Underreporting is not uncommon. Shame and social stigma often keep survivors from coming forward. For men, the humiliation is no less acute. But there is hope. With the help of CVT’s transformative care, clients find strength and healing power in telling their stories.
Here are just some of the survivors who refused to let their torturers silence them:
“I was raped. I didn’t want to go on. Then I discovered I should stay strong and take care of myself.”
A survivor disclosed this to CVT Jordan’s psychotherapist/trainer, Islam Al-Aqeel, who guides clients through 10-week-long group counseling cycles. Islam was struck by how powerless the client appeared at her first session, and by the remarkable transformation that had subsequently occurred.
“Before CVT, I just wanted to sit at home in a dark room,” the survivor said. “I couldn’t stand to hear people talking.” But when she said goodbye to Islam at her final session, she had a new hair color; she was smiling. She smelled good. “Her outlook,” Islam observed, “had completely changed.”
“I am a child. I should be playing, not breast feeding.”
A young girl told this to CVT Nairobi’s psychotherapist and trainer, Elizabeth Mbatha Muli, MSc, after revealing that the world was not a place where she could trust anyone. She belonged to a group of young women referred to CVT by Heshima Kenya (now RefuShe).
The girls have escaped captivity by militias and when they come to CVT, many are pregnant. “Some have no idea how many men had sex with them,” said Elizabeth. “They are teens. They are still children.” A few of the girls have even asked, “Can someone take this child so I can play?”
It can be difficult for mothers to accept a child born from rape. At CVT, we help these survivors, many of whom are girls, work through how they can heal – even when the circumstances seem impossible to overcome.
“I was like their wife to them.”
Rosa was captured by the Mai-Mai outlaw group in Congo. She endured forced hard labor and sexual violence at one of their camps, which held 15 men. Six months later, she escaped, and joined group counseling for Congolese and Burundian girls ages 15 – 18 at CVT Nairobi. When she started therapy, Rosa told CVT Nairobi’s psychosocial counselor, Edna Gicovi, that she could not share her story with the group. This changed as the sessions continued.
“During some of the difficult sessions, we introduced a ritual where both facilitators and the group members go around the group giving everyone a brief hug,” said Edna. “The girls seemed comfortable with this.” Some girls even began to open up and tell their stories. When Rosa decided she was ready, Edna noticed that there was hardly a dry eye in the room as she spoke.
“I am fortunate because only one of my finger nails was removed.”
Many of Qassem’s fellow prisoners had all of their nails removed. He was tortured for 13 days straight after attending a demonstration in Syria. Then he was transferred to a local prison in Horns, where he spent six months suffering sexual and psychological humiliation.
The experience of sexual violence is one of extreme powerlessness and violation. And for men, it may have severe identity consequences because many consider it to be emasculating. After Qassem was released, he sought refuge in Jordan. He came to CVT to work though his trauma, and by the end of the healing cycle, he felt ready to tell his story. He did not want others to suffer as he had.
“I’ve shared something with you I’ve never shared before. You gave me an opportunity I’ve never had.”
For Teresia Macharia, psychosocial counselor at CVT Nairobi, hearing these words from a client is the most important part of her work. She sees a considerable number of survivors who hail from widely different backgrounds, including a group of teenage girls who have been raped and now have children.
The counseling sessions provide a safe space for the young survivors to tell their stories in their own words. “We give them a moment to feel, to break down, to express their feelings,” says Teresia. “They learn to trust over time.”
The effects of sexual assault are deep and long-lasting. But at CVT, survivors find the strength to rebuild their lives. Being able to tell their stories helps so many of our clients not only heal their wounds but begin to feel a sense of promise for their futures. For survivors of some of the worst suffering imaginable, there is hope at CVT.
– Sabrina Crews, CVT marketing and communications specialist