Winter 2017 Fellow: Barbara Giovanelli, IRCT

Barbara Giovanelli recently completed a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship with the IRCT – the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. The IRCT serves as an umbrella organization for over 140 member-NGOs that aid survivors of torture in more than 70 countries, advocating for the right to holistic rehabilitation and providing victims with clinical, legal and social assistance. Originally from Italy, Barbara holds a Master’s degree from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratization.

In this blog post, Barbara reflects upon her research projects aimed at capturing stories of sexual torture victims, working alongside IRCT member organizations.

Stories of Survival

by Barbara Giovanelli

“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 IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) office in Copenhagen, his empathic question hit me so unexpectedly that I did not know what to say.

(In December 2016, the movement came together at the IRCT Scientific Symposium and General Assembly in Mexico City)

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.

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 analyzed 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 stigmatization 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.

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 honor for me to learn from you and help you share your experiences.

(December 2016, two of the Women of Atenco who were subjected to sexual torture by military forces in 2006, speaking at the IRCT Scientific Symposium in Mexico City)

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