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Sexual Harassment and Healing from Trauma

November 30, 2017

By Sukanya Sharma

The recent #MeToo campaign has brought to light again how sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence for many women and men. There’s no question about some of the major after-effects of dealing with an experience like this.

“Trauma is at its core an emotional response to an overwhelming (negative) event. It makes changes in the functioning of the brain,” Janavi Doshi, Program Director for HEAL, tells The Health Collective.

Research conducted in Denmark recently revealed that employees who experience sexual harassment by supervisors, colleagues or subordinates in the workplace may develop more severe symptoms of depression than employees who experience harassment by clients or customers. (Source: Science Daily)

An India Spend analysis of data from The National Crimes Records Bureau reports going back a decade found that crimes against women were reported every two minutes in India.

  • 10 cases were reported every hour of Cruelty by husbands and relatives (under section 498‐A of Indian Penal Code); 909,713 cases reported over the last 10 years

  • Kidnapping and abduction of women (315,074) is the third-most-reported crime followed by rape (243,051), insult to modesty of women (104,151) and dowry death (80,833)
    (Source: IndiaSpend)

Children, as we all know, are also vulnerable to abuse and harassment. The Hindustan Times reports on a survey published this year by World Vision India, which found that one in two children surveyed is a victim of child sexual abuse. The study also reports that one in four families do not come forward to report child abuse.

HEALING AND THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATION 

What happens to survivors? And what of the healing process?

Doshi highlights some key points to keep in mind:

  • Immediate safety is extremely important after a traumatic event

  • People who have been through sexual trauma may show overwhelming emotions especially anxiety, confusion, shame, guilt and self-blame

  • Talking to a person (not necessarily describing the event) who is calm and understanding can help in the survivor feel more safe and secure, understood, respected and cared for appropriately

Doshi adds advice for those who undergo such trauma:  “Seek out social support by connecting to trusted adults. Don’t keep quiet out of fear that others will not understand or that others will get upset. It’s not essential to talk about the event itself, just having someone who can make you feel secure and understood can make a big difference.”

ALSO READ: ASK THE EXPERTS: GRIEF AND COPING AFTER LOSING A PREGNANCY

Healing as a process looks different to different people, and respecting that process is absolutely essential.

Kirthi Jayakumar, founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, tells The Health Collective, “The first step is to make the choice to deal with the trauma - which starts from acknowledging it. Be aware of all the options you can access or have before you, and see what resonates with you. Talk to people if you want, do your research by reading, if you want. Take the step when it feels comfortable and when you want to.”

Your family, friends, partner play a huge part of this stage in healing, and getting back to a place of self-love.

HOW CAN FRIENDS AND FAMILY HELP

“Recognise that each survivor can show very different impact of the sexual violence. It’s not important for you to know the story. What is more important is for you to be present and provide a safe, secure space for the survivor to come to terms with the event at their own pace,” says Doshi.

Help to provide that safe space, and allow the survivor their own time to heal. Make an effort to understand more about what they might be going through...without intruding.

“Further, the trusted circle need to know that trauma makes changes in the brain functioning. Every time the survivor reacts unreasonably or has overwhelming emotions, the brain has triggered the response system based on their past experiences. All the brain, and in turn the individual is doing is a survival mechanism. As a support person, you can help them be calm in the moment by being calm yourself. Further, encourage the survivor to reach out for professional help and motivate them to keep the appointments. You can also get help for yourself to know more”, adds Doshi.

You can do the legwork in terms of finding resources that could prove helpful.

Kirthi Jayakumar, who coded the SAAHAS app for survivors of gender-based violence, also tells The Health Collective: "Survivors who have faced violence either don’t know where to go for help, or don’t have resources to find out where to go for help.

Sometimes, their situation prevents them from finding help, and that can be extremely dangerous to their safety. Research by the Red Elephant Foundation found that many women couldn't search for resources online due to search engine trails that they couldn't always successfully erase.  Furthermore, many women were unsure of the credibility of the organisations themselves.”
The SAAHAS directory of support enables a one-click platform to identify where services are available for survivors, without leaving a trail, and it also facilitates collaboration.

“Organisations can help survivors in other countries access help, or, can refer survivors who come to them, to others to respond to particular needs," Jayakumar says.*

(Editor's note: Remember that the physical safety of the survivor is paramount. First ensure that the survivor is safe.)

 

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 What does the survivor need to know? It’s not your fault.

Doshi further explains that in cases of sexual violence, especially child sexual abuse, the offender grooms the victim over time. They make them believe that they are party to the abuse, thus, making feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame for survivors extremely common.

FOUR THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

1) Be careful in your choice of words

Questions like “When did it happen?” “How many times?”, “Where?”, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” are intrusive and only serve to push the blame or guilt onto the survivor.

2) Tread carefully

Your choice of words will be determined by whether you’re talking to an adult or a child.

“Younger children will have limited vocabulary and hence require more behavioural communication. Always keep the narrative open-ended and don’t put words in their mouth. Let them describe the events in their own language and vocabulary at their pace. Adolescents and adults can process information cognitively and hence will be a lot more verbal. Regardless of the age, all survivors need to feel secure, believed, and protected. They need to be accepted with dignity and respect,” explains Doshi.

3) Being open and non-judgemental plays an important role in establishing trust between the survivor and the care-giver

ALSO READ: ASK THE EXPERTS: LEARNING TO BE KIND TO YOURSELF

4) Be aware about touch

Many survivors of sexual abuse are averse to and have a, spontaneous reaction to unexpected touch. Caregivers need to remember that their reaction has nothing to do with them...It’s a part of the fight-or-flight response system, and the survivor’s brain takes time to register that this touch is safe.


Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. Material on The Health Collective cannot substitute for professional advice from a trained expert.

*For more information on the SAAHAS app, visit: http://www.redelephantfoundation.org/p/saahas-gbv-help-map.html

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