Messages to survivors

Dear survivor, this letter is written to those of you who have experienced a human rights violation. This can mean different things, but common to human rights violations is that they brutally go against your right to life, to freedom of speech and movement, to bodily integrity, and your right to be free from any inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, among others.

Maybe you feel that this is not the case for you, that what happened to you was not a human rights violation? Maybe you are not sure? If this is the case, we encourage you to read the rest of this letter and the information on this page anyway. It might give some helpful information and you might learn that what happened to you actually was a human rights violation.

Human rights violations are illegal by international standards, and they are horrific and extremely unjust. What may have happened to you should never have happened to you neither to any human being. Because you are a human being, you have rights. Every human being in the world has the same human rights. And these must under no circumstance be violated.

We hope that the information that we give you in the following can help you to take some first steps to move on in life.

The world may seem different than before because of the abuse that you may have been exposed to, you may experience going through a difficult and painful time. Maybe you feel like the world seems different from how it used to be, like it is not quite the same as it was before? Maybe your feelings about, or relationship to yourself and people around you seem different? Maybe it is difficult to talk to family and friends about what happened, or maybe you do not want to talk about it to anyone? Maybe you find it difficult to spend time with other people? Maybe you find it difficult to trust people?

These feelings are common. Many people may feel this way after having gone through something very difficult and extremely unjust. It is also possible that you do not feel this way, but that you are experiencing other difficult things. Whichever feelings and reactions you have after the abuse, these are understandable and common reactions to what happened. It is like this because of the abuse, and it is never your fault.

In the following, we will say something about different psychological and physiological symptoms or reactions that are common after abuse. Maybe you experience some of them, maybe many of them, maybe almost none of them, or maybe you experience other types of symptoms? You are not alone in experiencing symptoms, this is common and understandable, and we want to let you know that most symptoms will go away after some time. Sometimes however, and especially when the abuse was extremely grave and maybe happened multiple times, symptoms may last for a long or very long time, sometimes for decades. Sometimes symptoms may disappear for a while and then reappear again. This is not abnormal and it does not mean that you are “crazy”. Most people will need different types of support in order to move forward.

Possible mental and physical reactions

Maybe some of you feel anxious or deep sadness? Maybe you have lost your sense of safety or trust in other people? Maybe you feel vulnerable and helpless? For some of you it may feel like what happened in the past comes back to the here and now, as if it happened again? Maybe you find it difficult to sleep, and have bad dreams and nightmares about what happened when you sleep? Maybe you try to avoid certain locations, people or activities? Maybe you feel numb, that you don’t feel your body that much, and/or find it difficult to remember what happened? Maybe you find it difficult to concentrate or to feel calm and relaxed? Maybe you sometimes feel like your whole body is extremely active and stressed? Maybe you experience other types of symptoms and reactions?
Again, these are possible reactions that are common after experiencing abuse. If you experience some or all of these symptoms, you need to know that there is nothing wrong with you. You are not “going crazy”, this is the way the body may react to threats like severe abuse.

Some possible reactions might be depression, flash backs, anxiety and panic attachs. In the following we describe a few of the possible reactions in more detail:


Depression is more than just a passing blue mood, a “bad day,” or temporary sadness. The most common symptom is a low mood that can sometimes appear as irritability. Often the person with depression is not able to enjoy activities that he or she normally enjoys.

With major depression, there is a profound sadness or a sense of despair. The symptoms of major depression are defined as lasting at least two weeks, but usually they go on much longer.

Click here if you want to know more.



Everyone worries or gets scared sometimes. But feeling extremely worried or afraid much of the time, or repeatedly feel panicky, may be signs of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders include panic attackspost-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person has an anxiety disorder if she or he has persistent worry for more days than not, for at least several months. For some people, anxiety comes on suddenly, triggered by a crisis or tragedy.

Click here if you want to know more.


PTSD | Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Is considered to be caused either by psychological or physical trauma, more frequently a combination of both. Traumatic events that may cause symptoms of PTSD are for example (experiencing or/and witnessing) violent assault, abuse, torture, being a hostage or kidnapping – so we are talking about a wide range of settings from violence in private context up to war, conflict, disaster and catastrophes. Not everyone experiencing such events will develop symptoms.

The most typical symptoms for PTSD are re-experiencing the original trauma through flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event, increased arousal (as irritation, anger, sleep-disorders), depression and anxiety. There is a wide range in severity of symptoms, some people might even develop “complex PTSD” (with dissociative symptoms) or a kind of “multiple identity”.

For further reading, a booklet with information about PTSD (in English) can be accessed here



After having experienced severe abuse, many survivors have nightmares and troubled sleep. It is a way of the mind and the body to react to, and process, what has happened. Nightmares can be extremely frightening and can lead to survivors not getting enough rest and good sleep. Here are some tips that may help you to sleep better at night:

  • Practice during the day good things that you can do when you wake up from nightmares at night. For example, getting to know your bedroom well during the day can help you to orient yourself easily during the night and help you to know that you are in your bedroom. Make a plan or create a routine for what you will do if you wake up from a nightmare.
  • If you wake up from a nightmare, try to use your senses to connect with the present moment. For example, you can start by trying to move your body, first your fingers and toes, then your hands and feet, your neck and then your arms and legs. Then touch your pillow or mattress and feel the texture of it against your skin. You can sit up and feel your feet planted on the ground. You can turn on the light (if possible) and look at the objects in the room. You can also practice a grounding exercise (we explain this under the heading Self-care: grounding exercises on this page) if you have learned how to do it.


What happened?

What type of abuse you may have gone through and the context within which it took place may be different from one person to another. Maybe some of you knew about the threat of being abused and have lived with this fear for a while? Maybe it suddenly happened or you had not been aware of any danger? Maybe you knew that your work or activism put you in a heightened risk?

The abuse is a violation of your human rights 

The severe abuse that you may have gone through is a violation of your human rights. There are many people all around the world working hard and doing everything they can to try to stop such abuse from taking place. It is a very serious issue that the international community and international organisations such as the United Nations, are working on and have been working on for a very long time. As mentioned above, violating a person’s human rights is illegal by international standards. Every human being has inherent human rights that they are born with and that nobody must violate. This means that because you are a human being, you have human rights. The human rights are stated in the document the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 (please click here for a good and easy to read overview). You have the right to life, to liberty, and to freedom of expression. You have the right to health, to education and to work. You have the right to freedom from torture and freedom from arbitrary detention. Also, as a survivor of a human rights violation, you have specific rights.

Survivors often need help to move on in life 

Individuals who have experienced severe abuse are usually referred to as either a “survivor” or a “victim”. In this letter and on this webpage, we use the word survivor. Often survivors will need help with their first steps of taking back control in their life. However, it may be difficult to talk about what happened. Sometimes it does not feel right to talk. Sometimes survivors even feel some kind of shame about what happened, and therefore do not want to talk about it to other people. Talking about what happened can also be dangerous. You might want to protect others by not telling them or having been told by the perpetrators that they will come back if you tell anyone what they did to you. Maybe it is too terrible to tell someone. Maybe there is no language that can describe it or maybe you are worried that people will not believe you if you tell them what happened. We want you to know that help and support does not necessarily mean that you need to tell someone about what happened. When it is possible, support from somebody – feeling that you have people who support you – may be important. Social support can be from a partner, family, friends, a neighbour, a colleague, a social worker, someone from a political or activist group that you were part of or just somebody in the village, town or city where you are or somebody else. This support can take many forms, and we have also written a letter specifically for people who are supporting a survivor. Some survivors are close to others who have been targeted by severe human rights violations and might give support to each other. The most important is that the support is respectful and understanding of your needs as a survivor.

Finding ways to take care of yourself

Sometimes, for different reasons, there may be nobody that can support you. Or you may spend time alone and find this difficult. It is important to try to find ways to taking care of yourself. There can be many different ways of doing this. Maybe you can have a flower or plant, and take care of it? Maybe some grounding exercises – as explained under the heading Self-care: grounding exercises on this page – can be of some help? Maybe going for a walk outside may help you, if it is safe outside, or listening to some music that you like or read a book that you enjoy? If it is safe to use the internet, maybe you can communicate with people there? Maybe there is something else that may be helpful to you?

Your rights as a survivor 

As a survivor of a human rights violation, you have specific rights. These rights are the right to redress and the right to rehabilitation and include services and resources that survivors are entitled to. Internationally, a lot of people and organisations work to ensure that survivors are treated with dignity and respect, and that survivors are provided a basis from which to move on in life. These rights mean that you as a survivor should receive help and compensation in order to being able to move forward and to live a good and independent life. The forms of redress and rehabilitation can include things such as medical and psychological help, monetary compensation, assistance with housing and employment, and justice.

Although survivors have the right to redress and rehabilitation, this help is often not available and provided. It can also be difficult and even dangerous to report a human rights violation, making it very difficult for the survivor to claim her or his rights. Unfortunately, on many occasions, survivors do not receive the help that they should. We therefore have included some resources on this website that we hope can be of help to take the first steps in order to move forward in life.


What type of information can I find in the following pages? 

In the following, you can find more specific information about some of the things we have written about here.
First, you can find information about words and terms, both to describe the person who has experienced severe abuse and has had their rights violated as well as words and terms that are used to describe the violations.
Second, we will include specific information about the right to redress and rehabilitation, which are specific human rights of survivors.
After that, we will focus on rehabilitation and healing, with some information that we hope can be helpful in taking the first steps in moving forward.

In the next part, we will focus on self-care, on some grounding exercises that you can practice alone or with somebody you trust. With a lot of practice, grounding exercises can help you to come back to the present in moments when you feel overwhelmed by reactions and emotions.

After this, we provide examples from different countries, with stories about brave survivors and courageous helpers. You can then read the story about the Butterfly Woman. It is a story written by psychologists based on their work with survivors of sexual violence in conflict. It is about a woman who is living a normal life until, one day, she experiences severe abuse. The story is about how everything seems to change in her life after the abuse, but also about how she, little by little, receives help and moves on in life. We hope that the story can provide some hope.

Last, we will include information about different organisations and websites that work with either advocacy or with direct support to survivors in different parts of the world.

We hope that you will find the information that we provide on our pages useful.

Best wishes,

The MHHRI team