“During the ceremony I laughed again, and I became aware of my desire to teach everybody [about human rights].”
Encouraging and supporting torture survivors in telling their stories has long been recognised as an important element of rehabilitation. However, a new study on the effectiveness of testimonial therapy (TT) on the social participation and wellbeing of Indian survivors of torture and organised violence has found that the process can also bring communities together and lead to participants becoming human rights activists.
TT is a human rights-based psychosocial intervention, which can be used by non-professional counsellors. This means it can be especially useful in countries where there are not many trained psychotherapists or social workers.
The survivors tell their story, which is recorded and jointly edited by a counsellor, a note taker and the survivors themselves. The story is then presented to the survivors in a testimony ceremony, where they are honoured in front of their community.
If the survivors feel comfortable with it, their story will then be used as part of awareness-raising and advocacy activities.
“After [receiving] testimonial therapy I became a human rights activist. I now work in the village to promote human rights awareness by encouraging the villagers to report any incidence of ill-treatment or other problems,” explained one participant.
The study, which was carried out by researchers affiliated with DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, the Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and the University of Copenhagen focuses on a type of TT adapted to the Indian context, which has a strong community celebration approach.
The ceremony in the community marks the the turning point in the healing process, where the person makes the transition from the role of torture victim, to an empowered and recognised survivor of torture.
Community workers and human rights activists working with PVCHR chose 474 Indian survivors of torture and ill treatment from the regions of Uttar, Pradesh and Jharkhand for the study, and they received TT from 2010 to 2012.
The study found that the participants showed huge improvements in social and psychological wellbeing. The proportion of participants with a high risk of depression decreased from 89.6% initially to 30.8% one to two months after the last session.
By sharing their trauma story, survivors could overcome their distress and become more self-confident. They were also better able to take on more responsibility in their family and community.
“Before testimony [therapy] victims feel lonely and they do not tell their pain to anybody… But after testimony therapy I [put] outside my pain and share my story to encourage others. It is [a] very good process to give honor in front of [the] community and I feel that I have [got] my own dignity.”
While the study found that TT is indeed an effect method of rehabilitation, it also recommends that going forward more research needs to be done on how to build on its potential to empower and mobilise entire communities.
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