Archive for category IRCT Scientific Symposium 2016

Collaborative Models: Reflections on working with survivors of violence and torture

“When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.”

In her post on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, youth psychologist Gabriela Monroy offers readers a glimpse into one of the projects currently being implemented under the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program. Coalition members Covenant House International and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) are working together to develop a comprehensive set of materials on issues related to trauma informed care. These materials will be used for training and as reference for healthcare workers and specialists to better understand the effects of trauma and how to approach traumatised youth.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Gabriela Monroy)

I am a psychologist at La Alianza, Covenant House International’s (CHI) safe house for trafficked and sexually exploited girls in Guatemala. I am also the CHI regional coordinator in Latin America for the Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program on trauma-informed care, which is being carried out by the IRCT and CHI. I was invited to attend the 10th International Scientific Symposium organised by the IRCT in December 2016 in Mexico City. When I received the invitation, I very much looked forward to the opportunity to learn from survivors of torture and those who work to support them. I knew I had much to learn and much to share. After three days of listening to the presentations and experiences from different countries, I began to realise that in many countries across the globe like mine, “normal” is similar to a war zone where death, torture, rape, abuse and abandonment of children is the norm and life is a continuum of traumatic events. The exception is a moment of human and humane interaction– which is what we strive to accomplish at La Alianza.

(Gabriela Monroy, right, with one of her patients at La Alianza in Guatemala)

At La Alianza, young girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation find an environment that offers them the opportunity to finally be treated as human beings, in a dignified, respectful and non-violent way. For some of them, the violence in their lives has been so overwhelming that it can feel traumatic to be treated in such a humane fashion. Using a trauma informed care lens in my day-to-day work as a youth psychologist, I see, after some time of working with them, that the impact on their lives is visible. Society seems so surprised at the transformation that care, affection, and dignified treatment can produce. It is ironic because acting in a humane way should be the most common thing we do as humans, yet it still surprises us even more than the violence itself.

Every single presentation at the Symposium presented the testimonies and experiences of survivors on this continuum of violence and torture as examples of integrity and dignity. This simple reflection on my experience of this symposium hopefully will be a recognition and a homage to their courage and an expression of my respect for each one’s journey and all they have gone through.

When we work with persons who have been tortured or victims of violence without seriously questioning and denouncing the existence of this continuum of violence, we run the risk that our support can become yet another act of violence, even without intending so. And because of this, as professionals and as members of humanitarian organisations, it is necessary to develop an internal alarm system sensitive to this reality.

Also, we need to realise that best practices for dealing with survivors of torture and violence need to be based in respect for their day-to-day experience and respect for the ways they have survived, and if we can recognise this then we may be able to transform the norm that violence has become into the exception. This is my hope. I am grateful to the Hilton Prize Coalition for giving me the opportunity to be a witness to such courage.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 21 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — working together globally to advance their unique missions and achieve collective impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. Through its three Signature Programmes — the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Programme, the Disaster Resiliency and Response Programme and the Storytelling Programme – the Coalition is continually leveraging the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate new models for consideration.

For more information please visit their website.

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Treating trauma among refugees and asylum seekers in Sweden

In the heart of Sweden’s third biggest city, Malmø, lies one of the Swedish Red Cross Treatment Center for persons affected by war and torture. Every day the centre provides specialised treatment to torture survivors from all corners of the world. Since the centre first opened its doors in the late 1980s, it has helped nearly 5,000 traumatised men and women who have escaped violence and persecution, war and armed conflict.

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Image courtesy of the Swedish Red Cross. Photographer Ola Torkelsson.

On some occasions, the trauma from torture will not rear its ugly head until decades after the incident, explains Anette Carnemalm, Head of the centre in Malmø, which is a member of the IRCT. She has seen this happening with many of her clients, particularly women victims of torture, who only start to suffer from trauma and depression years later when their children are grown up and their time is no longer filled with caring for them on a daily basis. This shows in the group of clients that the centre treats.

“Of course we have many clients from the Middle East, but there are still many clients from the Balkans, especially women who survived the war,” says Anette. “What happens is that when a family arrives, the woman is consumed with looking after the family. When the children move from home the woman will often experience an existential crisis, which can lead to the trauma and depression that was left dormant for so many years.”

Knowing this, it is perhaps not surprising that Anette predicts that we will see a similar thing with Syrian women 20 years from now.

While the consequences of torture haven’t changed, the refugees coming to Sweden have. Before the war in the Former Yugoslavia, there were the dictatorships in Latin America during the 1970s, which saw an influx of refugees from this part of the world. Today, many of the refugees coming to Sweden are from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Somalia and Eritrea.

“It’s been a year since Sweden saw a great raise of influx in refugees arriving in the country, but we only started receiving clients much later, which is a natural consequence of refugees trying to integrate and settle. Not until they’re beyond the acute crisis will they seek help for trauma symptoms,” says Anette and continues: “The real influx in clients will be seen in a year or two from now.”

Unlike other Red Cross centres in Sweden that take many asylum seekers waiting for their case to be processed, the centre in Malmø treats a higher number of people with permanent residency. In fact, Malmø is Sweden’s most multicultural city and in the inner city there are residential areas, which are home to a large number of families with an immigrant background, as well as students and artists.

Despite this, Sweden at present has the lowest denominating standard in the EU when it comes to asylum seeking law, after just recently having introduced increasingly strict legislation on immigration. For many traumatised asylum seekers, this means they face a great deal of uncertainty, which often hinders their treatment.

“It is important to create a safe environment for a client in order for them to seek treatment, but it’s very hard in the present situation to convey that this is not a threatening environment, when it does seem threatening for a refugee who is here alone and doesn’t know if he or she will be allowed to stay,” says Anette, as she points out that the situation for centres like hers is also uncertain. Even though her centre has so far been protected from any funding cuts, there are no guarantees.

“The political climate has changed and we now see political parties objecting to our funding so we don’t know where we’re heading in this sense.” So far, the centre has managed to expand to meet a growing demand for its services and today it has 22 staff, 19 full-time and three part-time. Their work has made a difference to not only many of their clients, but also to the torture rehabilitation movement.

“We see our efforts make a great difference in our work with the Istanbul Protocol, documenting torture, but also when a patient tells us that they are feeling better. It is immensely rewarding working, or even just sharing a coffee, with a person who has survived such terrible circumstances. See them fighting to get their life back, improving their relationship with their family and regain some of the trust that has been lost.”

“It is clear that Anette treasures her work despite the challenges that her and her colleagues face: “From here I don’t know where to go. I’m with the Red Cross and I am doing this job, and I don’t know where I would want to go that could be any better. It’s a very rewarding job, but obviously also very strenuous. As the Head of the centre it is very important to ensure that my staff don’t get too overwhelmed or stressed and stay healthy.”

Röda Korset Malmö.Foto Ola Torkelsson ©

Image courtesy of the Swedish Red Cross. Photographer Ola Torkelsson

Work challenges and strict immigration policies aside, Anette does hope that her centre, as well as the global rehabilitation movement will become better at sharing knowledge and influencing the current political climate.

“I hope that our knowledge will influence the political debates to a larger extent and that we can convey our knowledge about torture and rehabilitation to the rest of the world so we can change people’s opinions and understanding. There is this political movement, which is global, but there is also a growing knowledge of trauma, which is a good thing. We do a lot of lectures and people are always taken aback when they hear about our work. They didn’t know… so we need to be better at sharing knowledge and raising awareness.

“I hope that we continue to build our scientific knowledge about trauma and how best to help. As an example, there is a lot of research on how to treat PTSD among war veterans, but not much research on how to treat PTSD among people in exile – people who are supposed to integrate in a different country. What is it like to suffer from trauma in a different country, without your family and your social network, not knowing the culture nor the language?”

It is clear that the rehabilitation sector still has work to do in terms of developing and sharing its knowledge about trauma among refugees and asylum seekers and what the best treatment methods are. It is also clear that centres like the one in Malmø have a key role to play in doing so.

Anette Carnemalm was among the presenters at the IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium, which took place from 4-7 December in Mexico City. The Symposium brought together more than 350 participants from across professions, sectors and countries.

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Ten years on and the Women of Atenco still seek justice

“When I got out of jail, I stayed in my house for a year,” says Claudia. “I cried, and I suffered so much. I had had plans for the future with my partner, but when I got out of jail, he left me. I felt like the whole world had turned its back on me because I was a rape victim. During that time, I began to drink a lot, and I started to go to a lot of bars. I did many things I didn’t normally do. And then I realised that the government had tied me up for a moment. They laid the first stone of my destruction. But even with all of this, I said to myself, ‘I am still Claudia! I am still Claudia! I was raped, but this does not take away my dignity.”

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Bárbara Italia Méndez Moreno (Photograph courtesy of Daniel Berehulak)

These are the words of Claudia. She is one of the 45 women arrested by police in Mexico one morning in May 2006 at a market square where they sold flowers. Dozens were seriously injured, two people were killed and many of those arrested sexually assaulted. The women have never received justice for what they experienced and continue to fight the impunity of their perpetrators. They have become known around the world because of their fight for justice.

In September this year, a little over 10 years since the event, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in relation to their case. The Commission noticed the “existence of severe acts of physical and psychological violence, including diverse forms of sexual violence against the eleven women and rape in the case of seven women”.

This development is a milestone in the struggle of the Women of Atenco, as not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults. In 2013 the state partially admitted responsibility, but the Women of Atenco say it has failed to deliver justice as the federal forces involved in the assaults have never received sanctions.

In addition, after the events of 3 May the state initially prosecuted several of the women rather than the police officers involved. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges such as blocking traffic. Achieving some sense of justice may go some way to helping the women overcome the trauma of their past. “I have not overcome it, not even a little. It is something that haunts me and you don’t survive. It stays with you,” says Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, one of the women, in a previous interview.

The IACHR had previously recommended that the state arrange full reparation for the victims, including providing them with medical and psychological treatment, continue its investigations effectively to “fully establish what happened, and to identify and punish the different grades of responsibility, from the material authors to other forms of responsibility”.

However, the Commission was not satisfied that the Mexican state followed its recommendations and has now stepped up its action by filing the application. A ruling made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would be binding, unlike the recommendations, and could create a judicial precedent that could prevent further sexual abuses by federal security forces.

The fact that the case is finally receiving the attention it deserves has not stopped the Women of Atenco from continuing to spread their message and two of them, Italia Mendez and Norma Jimenez, will be keynote speakers at the upcoming IRCT 10th International Scientific Symposium in December in Mexico City. The women will speak in a session on survivor participation in research and treatment planning and will share their experiences.

“We are those who did not surrender to the misogyny of the state, and rejected the place that perpetrators assigned to us. They tried to take our identity, but we responded by shouting our name out loudly and reclaiming our right to be. We are breaking paradigms, taboos and raising awareness about the stigmatisation of survivors,” says Italia.

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