Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), is a global problem that disproportionately affects women. Approximately one in three women will experience either physical or sexual violence during her lifetime. SGBV is a serious public health problem because it affects reproductive health, places women at risk for STIs and HIV, and causes emotional and psychological harm; it is a social problem because it further undermines the power and equality of women in society; and it is a human rights problem because it strips women of their autonomy, safety and sometimes their lives.
Following humanitarian crises, women experience sexual violence at alarmingly increased rates. Displacement of populations, lack of security, failure of the legal system, economic hardship, and breakdown of community structures all heighten the rates of violence against women and girls in the long aftermath of war. Armed conflict and displacement also tear individuals from those mechanisms that would promote their recovery and resilience, such as support networks, cultural traditions, and family relationships. Particularly in the absence of these countervailing factors, victims suffer enduring and debilitating psychological consequences.
To make matters worse, in the context of mass violence where resources are especially scarce, few programs are available to address the complex psychosocial needs of survivors. Where they exist, SGBV response initiatives focus on the immediate medical and security needs of women who have endured violence, sometimes providing emergency psychosocial services. But programs that address the long-term psychological needs of survivors beyond the crisis phase are quite rare. As far as we know, lacking entirely are long-term interventions whose effectiveness has been demonstrated systematically.
Common Threads Approach
Common Threads Project was established in 2011 by Dr. Rachel Cohen, a clinical psychologist specializing in psychological impact of violence on women. Our approach provides a path to psychological recovery for GBV survivors in the critical period following acute crisis. Using the traditional practice of sewing stories into cloth, Common Threads offers a unique evidence-based psychological intervention for healing from the enduring consequences of GBV, displacement, conflict and war. Victims of violence break their silence, recover from trauma and are empowered to help one another.
Stories in Cloth
Silvia fled her home after an attack on her village by paramilitary forces in Colombia. She joined a Common Threads Project group with other women in the refugee settlement. Silvia created a story cloth that revealed what troubled her most about her circumstances. Though her family faced constant violence from outside political violence, it was domestic violence that posed the greatest threat to her personally.
Most prominent in Silvia’s story cloth is the image of her children under attack on the river. But if you look closer, you notice a man holding a bottle in the foreground. This is her husband, too drunk to help when she calls out to him. In the women’s circle, she felt safe to disclose his violent rages, and acknowledge the fear she lived with everyday. With the support of the circle and its facilitators, Silvia found the strength to leave this relationship, report the violence to authorities, and begin to rebuild her life. A year later she participated in an exhibition of the group’s work and spoke out as part of the global “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence.” This exhibition later traveled to Geneva where it challenged UN representatives to take global action to end SGBV.
In 2010, Maria’s teenage daughter was raped and murdered. Stunned, and fearing for her own life, Maria nonetheless managed to escape Colombia and flee to Ecuador. There she also lacked the safety needed for grieving; Maria remained frozen in silence. When she joined Common Threads Project, she did not speak or make eye contact. She was flattened by depression and cut off from others. Despite her initial reluctance, Maria found support in CTP’s women’s circle. She had never spoken about what happened to her daughter, but in the women’s circle she managed to stitch the memory into her story cloth.
Her “sewing sisters” learned how best to support her as she created this dark graphic of paramilitary violence. The circle shared stories of traumatic loss, and how to cope with flashbacks, nightmares, and survivor guilt. Maria listened intently and seemed to take in all that went on in the group. After a few months, Maria added two bright elements to her textile – a rosebush and a yellow bird. When asked about these by her peers in the circle, she said, “That rosebush is my daughter’s soul that goes on blooming. That yellow bird is her voice-I can hear it again.” With the help of her Common Threads Project circle ,she was finally able to grieve and make her way toward recovery.