Sexual violence: The courage to testify

10.01.2019

Last spring, Selma Korjenić, Head of the Bosnia and Herzegovina program, traveled to Athens with a rape survivor supported by TRIAL International to meet with women migrants. Read about her experience below. 

“Fighting for one’s rights is never a waste of time. For victims of sexual violence, testifying means not only sharing experiences, but sometimes also encouraging others to speak up. This is exactly what happened when Semka Agic and I went to Athens to meet local NGOs that help migrants.

As a survivor of rape during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Semka is one of the women who have obtained justice with the help of TRIAL International. In Greece, she shared her story with women migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Forced to migrate, these women are particularly vulnerable to various forms of sexual violence. I remember one of them was visibly shaken by Semka’s testimony; she suddenly realized that she was not alone in having suffered atrocities. She spoke up later that day to unload her own burden.”

Sharing to help others share

“Volunteers for Glocal Roots, an NGO based in Zurich in Switzerland, organized the meeting in Greece. Their goal was to ‘learn from the experiences of others.’ The workshop in which we took part reflects the NGO’s wish to break the taboo around sexual violence: ‘Through our workshops, we start new (and often first) dialogues with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and support other women to develop their own coping strategies.’

This exchange of experiences offered a two-fold advantage. It not only helped women who have not yet dared to break the silence find the courage to do so, but it was also an opportunity for Semka to pass along her energy; her desire to fight for her rights – the rights of all these women. If I had one wish, it would be that her legal struggle inspires other victims to also mobilize and obtain justice.”

Raising awareness within aid organizations

“Women migrants are not the only ones to benefit from such exchanges: the many organizations that help migrants must also be able to support victims of sexual violence.

For example, the Melissa Network provides Greek language lessons, workshops, childcare, and support to migrant and refugee women throughout Greece. While it is well-equipped to accomplish its mission, it is not prepared to handle crisis situations faced by women who have suffered sexual violence. The women often do not dare talk about what they have experienced, for fear of being stigmatized or because they worry that they might awaken a trauma that is too painful to bear.

The first step is therefore to create a climate of trust in which the women will dare speak about their experience. However, organizations must be taught how to talk to victims of such violence. By their own admission, the organization’s volunteers are not fully prepared to tackle such situations, let alone to try to help them bring the perpetrators to justice.

Far from pulling the organizations away from their main task, i.e. emergency aid, Semka’s testimony helped show both victims and professionals that there are different means, including psychological support and legal guidance, that could contribute to healing the wounds caused by sexual violence. And that the first step must be breaking the silence.”