The cloths with this column were created by women living in Nepal, Ecuador and Congo and photographed by Rafe Scobey-Thal. Top: “Why I Had to Leave My Village,” from a Colombian refugee in Ecuador. The words sewn into the cloth translate to: “This is the story the cloth wants to tell.”
Rachel A. Cohen is a clinical psychologist, and the founder and executive director of Common Threads Project.
A 16-year-old girl was abducted, raped, beaten and held captive for months in Congo. She became pregnant and gave birth. In an effort to avoid the stigma and shame that this would bring upon her family and because she would not be eligible for any other marriage, her parents joined the perpetrators’ family in trying to force her to marry her abductor. Although she was expected to obey, she refused. The perpetrator’s family took her baby. Remarkably, she managed to escape and make her way to a center where she could access services for girls like her. There she created the story cloth below.
She is one of millions of girls and women around the world who suffer brutal forms of sexual and gender-based violence. They suffer severe physical injuries. They suffer financially, likely to drop out of school or leave work. The psychological consequences of these atrocities are profound and lasting: depression, numbness, risk of suicide, self-loathing, withdrawal from others, severe stress reactions, immobilizing fears, flashbacks and more. The social stigma and shame that surround victims make them outcasts. At the moment when they most need support, they are frequently rejected by families and communities. Victims tell us that this particular wound is the worst aspect of their suffering.
In regions of armed conflict, sexual violence is a pervasive weapon of war and an effective tool of genocide: devastating individuals and families, terrorizing communities, and contributing to displacement of entire populations. Think about the Rohingya, Yazidi, Bosnian, Syrian, Congolese, Rwandan and Colombian examples. The perpetrators of these mass atrocities are often treated with impunity while victims are silenced and their stories are left out of the public discourse.
There is much work to be done to achieve justice and to reduce the virulent spread of gender-based violence. But in the nightmarish meantime, what might aid those whose lives have been derailed? Can we develop compassionate, culturally responsive, effective interventions that lead to lasting recovery? The answer is yes. I have witnessed the miraculous resilience of women who prove that it is possible, not only to recover from the most hideous of atrocities but also to transform, to grow beyond the trauma and to channel their suffering toward social change.
A major challenge to treatment is that victims of severe complex trauma have trouble disclosing their abuse in verbal form. Current neuroscience helps us appreciate that it is not only cultural taboo about rape and justifiable fears of retribution that keep victims from speaking up. Trauma is stored in the body, in sensorimotor phenomena and in visual images, not in words. When we refer to “unspeakable” atrocities, that is exactly the case. Increasingly we appreciate that victims may have no words for what they have endured.
Remarkably, the ancient and widespread practice of making story cloths offers a road to recovery that is consistent with insights from current brain science. In coping with adversity, women in many diverse cultures have gathered to support one another, and to sew that which they cannot speak into narrative textiles.
Those who have practiced this powerful form include the Chilean women who used potato sacks and scraps of clothing of the “disappeared” to sew story cloths during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Outlawed by the Laotian government, the textiles of the Hmong people provided a way to narrate their painful history. Amazwi Abesifazane (Voices of Women) is an archive of more than 3,000 story cloths made by South African women, showing their experiences under apartheid. The AIDS Memorial Quilt has been a massive effort by those who lost loved ones to pay tribute and to grieve — in textile form.
What is intrinsically therapeutic about this simple activity? These activities provide a sense of connection and solidarity with other women, and the relief that one is not alone in this predicament. Emotional safety and personal disclosure are enhanced when the hands are busy and there is no demand for eye contact. Creating images allows for unmediated self-expression. Hand sewing is calming, rhythmic and meditative. And like the recovery process, sewing happens at a slow and intricate pace. It may also foster a sense of mastery so needed by those who have been subjected to violence.
The experience of producing an external representation of one’s internal pain and making something beautiful of a horrific experience can be transformative. It can allow an isolated victim to feel heard and understood.
Inspired by this transcultural wisdom and informed by current neuroscience, we have been piloting the Common Threads Project, an integrative trauma treatment program for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
At each site, the circles are facilitated by local clinicians who are extensively trained, supervised and mentored by Common Threads Project. Circles of about 15 women meet for six months of five-hour weekly sessions. Because the circle becomes like a new “family,” the women often opt to continue to meet together without the facilitators into the future.
The aim is not to simply disclose one’s story, but ultimately to experience those stories in a new way: free of shame, self-blame, survivor guilt and self-hate.
When local partners adapt and implement a program, we have seen participants emerge from isolation into connection, transform stigma and shame into dignity and pride, move from expressive constriction to creativity, and restore a sense of possibility for the future.
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