Silence to Resilience: Empowering survivors of sexual violence through MANTRA & STRI

by Yvette Aiello & Pearl Fernandes
NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS)
(foto: Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash)

Focus Summary

In this one day workshop we explained and provided examples of the group treatment approach we adopted in MANTRA and STRI 1that assisted clients to break their silence and rediscover a renewed sense of self (connection with their bodies, thoughts and feelings) and a resultant reawakening of their resilience.

Key Insights

  • Workshop participants were encouraged to explore how and why refugee survivors of sexual violence respond. In particular we reflected on the following:
    • The “culture of silence” that generally surrounds wartime sexual violence; it is a ‘secret’ seldom disclosed and often repressed due to the intense fear and pain that these memories evoke.
    • How avoidance may be a survivors’ way of coping and the result of the broader cultural context of stigma and the need to protect family and community honor.
    • The tendency to dissociate in efforts to distance oneself from the physical self as the survivor’s body is the “scene of the crime”.
    • How long after physical wounds have healed the “invisible scars” accompanied by the loss of “identity” could torment most survivors.

    The workshop program covered the following areas:

    • The complexities in the field of sexual gender based violence (SGBV)
    • Understand and develop skills relevant to effective approaches & interventions
      How to enhance Therapeutic Outcomes
    • Vicarious trauma and self-care

    In addition to this, the workshop hoped to highlight the effectiveness of a group therapy program integrating culturally appropriateness trauma informed approaches in assisting survivors of sexual violence.

Key take-outs from the ISHHR 2017 Conference (industry feedback, networking, peer presentations

Industry peers were able to offer their own valuable perspectives and insight into what they had observed in the area of sexual violence in conflict which helped to contribute to my own understanding & plans for future research and project developments.

Particularly valuable insights were garnered from discussions around supporting interpreters to work effectively with survivors of sexual violence and within the therapeutic relationship.

The discussions that arose in the workshop also provided opportunity to explore the means through which various professions can support each other to address sexual violence in a more systemic and holistic manner, acknowledging the pervasiveness and complexity of the issue. That is the importance of sexual violence being addressed at not only the individual but also family, national and international community levels as well.

Future goals — what’s next?

I will hope to build on the relationships made at the conference in the hope of further sharing the knowledge and resources from around the world with the intention being to raise greater awareness of the pervasiveness and complexity of sexual violence towards both genders within conflict situations and the means through which health professionals can support survivors of sexual violence.

How can local / national / international media better assist in bringing the vital issues discussed at ISHHR 2017 to light, and further encourage real, positive change and understanding?

In covering incidents of sexual violence it would be important that disclosures from survivors are treated sensitively. Survivors should not be pushed to make disclosures and when they do wish to report it would be beneficial to do this with the support of a clinician, who can help guide how and when questions are asked and how the information is portrayed. 

However, the media can play an important role in shifting cultural views of sexual violence by building on awareness on the impact of sexual violence and the prevalence.