Posts Tagged research

Capturing the stories of torture victims

“You have to listen to a lot of horrible stories and accounts. Do you have a space for processing them?” asked a psychotherapist I had been interviewing as part of my research. He was asking me how I was coping with the heavy topic I had to deal with during my fellowship. Like many of my interviewees, he is a psychotherapist who works with survivors of torture. On that day, he had been telling me about his experience with patients who had been subjected to sexual violence as a means of torture. During what had become a very normal day for me at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) office in Copenhagen, his emphatic question hit me so unexpectedly that I did not know what to say.

Barbara Giovanelli recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). In her blog post published on the Hilton Prize Coalition website, Barbara reflects upon her research projects aimed at capturing stories of sexual torture victims, working alongside IRCT member organisations.

(From Hilton Prize Coalition, by Barbara Giovanelli)

I had joined the IRCT as an intern in February 2016. For five months, I contributed to the work of various IRCT teams with my knowledge on gender-based violence. I devised fact-sheets for advocacy activities, contributed to policy documents, participated in the evaluation of grant reports and completed background research for fundraising. As I found out more and more about the intersection of gender, sexual violence, and torture, my supervisors and I came up with a new project for the rest of my time in Copenhagen: for the last two months of my internship, I conducted a study on the specific psychosocial and health consequences that sexual methods of torture can cause. After a summer break, I re-joined the IRCT team for four more months through a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship in order to conclude the research and turn its outcomes into a final report.

Barbara Giovanelli

Barbara Giovanelli

I interviewed over 20 experts working in rehabilitation centers on sexual methods of torture. Although I used a comprehensive questions guide to structure the interviews, I did my best to let the experts talk freely about their first-hand experiences. Most of the interviewees were psychologists; others were doctors, social workers or lawyers. Many of them work in difficult circumstances, facing hostile political environments or critical financial situations. Once, for instance, an interview had to be postponed several times because my interviewee was called to an emergency intervention in the conflict-torn region of North Kivu in eastern Congo.

When I analysed all the rich information that I had gathered and looked for emerging themes and trends, I came to understand that there is one central and very sad aspect that accompanies almost all crimes of sexual torture: the fact that very often, victims do not report them.

While reporting a crime would be the first step, not only to claim justice, but also to allow the healing process to commence, feelings of shame and the fear of social stigmatisation deter survivors from disclosing their experience of abuse. In most societies, everything that has to do with sexuality is a very private issue and is strictly defined by social norms and taboos. “So they hide their stories and suffer in silence,” one of the experts explained.

Torture victim in Kenya.

Torture victim in Kenya.

To start breaking the silence and deconstructing the stigma around sexual torture, the outcome of my fellowship is a report that shares the knowledge of distinguished experts and draws conclusions on a phenomenon that is widely under-represented in research. The report also includes a series of case stories to illustrate the devastating consequences of sexual torture on the health and social life of survivors, and identifies particular needs resulting from the devastation.

At the conclusion of my fellowship with the IRCT, I now know the answer I would give that psychotherapist. It is not easy for anyone who has to deal with such crimes, but the work I did at my desk in Copenhagen is nothing compared to all the efforts undertaken by you, the front-line aid workers who may be reading this, and most of all by you, the survivors. I deeply admire your strength and courage. It was truly an honour for me to learn from you and help you share your experiences.

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.

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

An alternative way to treat victims of torture

“I am tired of it, tired of my body. Tired of my soul. I can only see that it’s getting more and more sick as time goes by.”

Much research has been done on the link between physical exercise and mental health. So far, focus has largely been on how an active lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms such as depression and chronic pain, but a group of Danish researchers have gone in a different direction, introducing traumatised refugees to the relatively unknown Basic Body Awareness Therapy.

Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) is a form of physiotherapy that is often used for psychiatric patients in Scandinavian countries. Stemming from different movement systems of Western and Eastern traditions, it focuses on movements related to posture, coordination, free breathing and awareness.

Over a period of 14 weeks, four physiotherapists at the Competence Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry in Copenhagen took a group of traumatised refugees from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon through weekly 90-minute BBAT group sessions.

A mainly nonverbal therapeutic process supported by short talks, BBAT is believed to strengthen the patients’ confidence in their own resources. Echoing this, the Danish sessions led to a growing self-confidence among the participants, with some even beginning to feel a sense of control over their own bodies.

The new issue of Torture Journal is now available from www.irct.org

The new issue of Torture Journal is now available from http://www.irct.org

“I have learnt how to concentrate myself away from pain. It starts by lying and thinking about
the skin and about something nice. Then everything goes away,” explained one of the participants.

“After all the traumas my body has been through, I feel good that it is still working,” said another.

Traumatised refugees are likely to suffer from (symptoms related to) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a consequence, their interest in participating in activities they once enjoyed has diminished.

For some participants, being part of a group not only motivated them to go to the sessions, but also helped them through the exercises.

“In my case, it’s better to be in a group. When we start doing the exercises, I am focusing on how the others are doing them and my attention is there. I don’t think about my pain during that moment. The thought of pain is distracted by their presence, because they are there.”

Others, who were initially cautious of group sessions, were positively surprised by the unity and solidarity that came from being part of a group.

“In the beginning we were wary of each other, because we didn’t know each other.
Afterwards, when we got to know each other, it got better. I was scared of receiving therapy in
a group, but I think it was a good experience.”

So what can we take away from the Danish study?

After the 14 weeks, the majority of participants expressed satisfaction with BBAT. Some felt happier while others had experienced increased body awareness helping them to reduce or cope with the pain.

“The physiotherapy that we are used to normally involves you going to a physiotherapist to get a massage. And this is something totally different, that you should learn to know your body and react according to the problems you have.”

In terms of participants, the study was small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in depth, enabling participants to express any progress or regress they experienced during the BBAT sessions. The encouraging results of the qualitative study suggest the need for further research on BBAT and traumatised refugees.

A bigger study could give us the certainty. But for now, it seems that BBAT could be a key component in the treatment of traumatised refugees.

 

To read the latest issue of Torture Journal click here.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

World’s largest collection of documents on torture still a well-kept secret

Only 15 minutes from Copenhagen’s city centre lies a library that, despite a collection that makes others pale in comparison, remains a well-kept secret.

The Documentation Centre and Library holds the world's most extensive collection of published documents on torture and related subjects.

The DIGNITY Library holds the world’s most extensive collection of published documents on torture and related subjects.

The DIGNITY Library holds the world’s most extensive collection of published documents on torture and related subjects. In fact, the library boasts more than 40,000 items, ranging from books and articles to journals and images.

“We probably receive around one hundred new items each month,” says the library’s documentalist, Ion Iacos. “On top of that, we also monitor around 300 bibliographical sources on a regular basis so there is plenty of material for our visitors.”

The DIGNITY Library is open to the public and visitors are very welcome to use its modern facilities.

“We have study areas, media rooms and user terminals that are all free to use,” explains Mr Iacos.

While most visitors are researchers, PhD students or people with a special interest in the anti-torture movement, schoolchildren also stop by to learn about specific areas within human rights and work on assignments.

“We have had 13-year old schoolchildren doing research on child soldiers in Africa. It was great to see how passionate they were about this topic and even better to be able to help them with their research,” says Mr Iacos.

There is no doubt that Mr Iacos himself feels strongly about human rights and that he sees the library as an important resource and knowledge hub for those wanting to do research or simply just learn more about the anti-torture movement.

Having worked there for 15 years, he still enjoys helping visitors find the right material and he hopes to receive even more publications from researchers and authors around the world. After all, as he says, “libraries are all about centralising knowledge and it is a place for you to have your voice heard.”

To find out more about the DIGNITY Library or to book an appointment go to: http://www.reindex.org/RCT/rss/Portal.php

, , , , , , , ,

2 Comments