Free writing can be a less traumatic way of a survivor of sexual violence to connect with his/her experienceImage courtesy of Shutterstock.

By Saara Ahmed

As a part of this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign WITNESS will launch a video series to accompany our guide, Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence. We’ll be writing a series of blog posts on GBV leading up to and during 16 Days.

There are often many challenges to obtaining adequate assistance for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence: social stigma, continued threats and fear from perpetrators. For immigrant women in the United States there are usually added barriers with language differences, a lack of culturally relevant services, and navigating complicated legal systems.

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The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project (NIWAP), Legal Momentum and California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) have partnered together for a seven-part webinar series designed to support advocates in the U.S. who are working directly with immigrant survivors of violence. The latest, “Trauma-Informed Care: Promoting Healing While Strengthening Survivors’ Immigration Cases” was meant for those who provide legal assistance to women and children petitioning for citizenship under special clauses of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). However the content of the webinar was useful for anyone working with survivors of gender-based violence.

Stories of violence are more than simply affidavits in legal cases; they are complex and personal experiences that shape the lives of survivors. The panelists (listed below) shared useful tips for how to: develop trust with immigrant survivors, develop survivor stories for the legal process using the “trauma-informed approach” and engage in self-care when developing survivor stories.

Develop trust with immigrant survivors

Survivors’ stories should not be taken lightly. As witnesses to their experience an interviewer should be mindful of the intended purpose of sharing, whether to raise awareness of violence or as evidence in legal cases. Sharing can be a cathartic, healing and very triggering experience for survivors and that process can be made much more supportive and empowering if the correct measures are taken such as establishing an empathetic and warm connection, being non-judgmental and validating the survivors experience, and being honest about your own perspective or lack of knowledge on the issue.

Develop survivor stories for the legal process using “trauma-informed” approach

One of the main focuses of the webinar was providing information on how to conduct a “trauma-focused writing intervention process,” which is a supported process of having a survivor relate his or her experience through an uninterrupted free-write of their experience and the trauma they experienced. Writing interventions have been shown to reduce the psychological impact of trauma exposure. Mary Ann Dutton from the Georgetown University Medical Center, Center for Trauma and the Community referred to the commonly used psychology phrase “to name it is to tame it” as a possible reason for why the writing intervention process is successful for survivors.

Engage in self-care when developing survivor stories

Those interviewing survivors can strengthen their ability to support survivors by being mindful of how they experience the process of listening and witnessing the stories. Taking breaks and pacing the sharing process can benefit not only the survivors but also those who are listening. Other self-care techniques mentioned were: preparing for the sharing sessions with adequate rest and good nutrition, nurturing the relationships and breathing exercises.

With over 300 participants tuned into the webinar, it was the most attended of the NIWAP series thus far. That speaks volumes to the need of those invested in supporting survivors of sexual and gender based violence to continue to share resources and come together to be better advocates. For more information on the webinar series and additional online resources visit the NIWAP online library.

Panelists for Trauma-Informed Care included:

  • Mary Ann Dutton, Ph.D., Georgetown University Medical Center, Center for Trauma and the Community
  • Leslye Orloff, Director, National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, NIWAP, American University Washington College of Law
  • Mercedes V. Lorduy, Co-Director, VIDA Legal Assistance, Inc.

Saara Ahmed is interning with the gender-based violence campaign at WITNESS. She has worked on prevention advocacy and community-based approaches to gender-based violence in the US and East Africa.  

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