Fieldset
Central African Republic: The four musketeers

Survivors of sexual violence can walk a lonely path. Psychologist Gisela shares a story about four women who have come together to find support and resilience in the Central African Republic.

This text comes thanks to the support of the mental health counsellors of the Tongolo project in the Central African Republic. It is their strength, abilities and skills that make this work possible. We are together for the survivors but also for each other as a team, as professionals and as humanitarians. We believe that mental health is essential.


In all the emotional difficulty that exists after the sexual assault, there is a space where survivors can come and share their pain and we welcome them with kindness.

"I tried to end this [suffering], and I decided to end my life because people in my neighbourhood told me that an assaulted person is no longer a person."

These are the words of one of our patients.

What happened, in this case, is no exception, this person is in great pain and on top of that, they have to face something even heavier and more difficult: the gaze of others. When sexual violence has been perpetrated in a community of several people, returning to the same place can revive the events.

She continues to say with her last strength and between her tears: "It is not worth living on. If I am no longer a person, what then am I?"

“You are a woman, a mother, a sister, who has been assaulted, who has gone through something difficult and unexpected,” we tell her.

“Now you are sad and in pain – which is very legitimate – but the strength that remains within you to seek help and overcome it is very precious."

The consequence of stigma

The gaze of others, that gaze which survivors cannot shy away from, can be overwhelming. This is because the assault happened near their homes, in their neighbourhood, where they used to live.

Stigma has a psychological consequence that is sometimes even more difficult to deal with than the event itself. However, this heaviness is easier to deal with when survivors have someone on their side within the family and their community who can shatter the idea that life stops because of what they've been through.

The sharing, listening, and caring and empathetic looks of the other survivors brought about a metamorphosis from death to life

It should also be noted that family members of survivors can enter an emotional state that is difficult to manage. Among the people we care for, we find that after an assault the family also feels overwhelmed, traumatised, anxious and sad. This can make it difficult to support survivors.

What is our role as mental health professionals in this case?

Metamorphosis

The act of legitimising the feelings that survivors are experiencing is essential in helping them overcome the trauma.

In most cases, we can do this during individual consultations. However, there are other cases where what’s needed is support within the expertise of other survivors. That’s when group counselling is a good strategy.

We group the survivors together according to the type of aggression they have experienced, their emotional state, their age and their imune status, in order to maintain a sense of similarity that is beneficial for the survivors.

This woman who was in a state of despair, who did not know who she was after the assault, said that she was afraid of the result of her HIV test and that was what worried her the most.

"But what was the result of your test?"

"It was negative," she replies.

"Me too," the others casually reply with a smile of relief and emotion.

“But I'm also frustrated and angry that these people took my body without asking."

“Yes, I am angry too. "

"I'm also scared and angry, but we're here together, we're going to get through this together. I believe in you, do you believe in me?” one woman motivates the group.

"Yes," say the others with their heads.

“We arrived together, we will leave together, we will not leave anyone behind. We are safe, we are already here,” she adds.

"The worst is already over. What remains is that we have our futures for our children" answers another.

The sharing, listening, and caring and empathetic looks of the other survivors brought about a metamorphosis from death to life.

Forging hope

Together with the counsellor, we saw a cascade of reactions and reinforcements that help forge hope and healing in each survivor.

The validation of emotions increases their courage to speak out and to break their silence after the event.

It is also their mutual support that helps transform suffering, sadness, hopelessness and stigma into a much more valuable tool: resilience.

It’s such an unknown path that unless you are living it, it’s difficult to imagine. However, what we are sure of is that the way back will not be the same.

It is a difficult and hard road that each survivor takes to reach our project after the assault.

The security situation, the difficulty in taking transport, the distance between healthcare centres and their homes as well as the weight of their thoughts, feelings and concerns are obstacles they must overcome in order to move forward.

It’s such an unknown path that unless you are living it, it’s difficult to imagine. However, what we are sure of is that the way back will not be the same.

Survivors leave without the heaviness of loneliness ... this is where one of our radio spots, advertising the Togolo Centre makes sense. The ad says “You're not alone” and those who come to the centre are not.

Considering this, in the group sessions we decided to bring together these stories that illustrate the concept of “resilience”. The ability to react in the face of adversity, to bounce back from trauma.

As stated by psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik, the importance of “ecological, emotional and verbal” environments is paramount:

“Let one environment fail and everything will collapse. Only one support bridge be offered and construction will resume."

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Read more: Stories about surviving sexual and gender-based violence

“I congratulate you on your courage”: Helping survivors of sexual assault overcome stigma
Sexual violence in Cameroon: Violet's story