This letter is written to those of you who are close to someone who has experienced a severe human rights violation. It may be someone you love or someone you know. It may be your partner, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, or an acquaintance. Sometimes you are both a support for a survivor and a survivor yourself. We encourage you to read this letter and the letter written to survivors as well.

Being close to someone who has experienced severe abuse

Can be difficult in various ways. Knowing that someone you care about has been seriously harmed can be extremely painful. You need to know that there is not one “right” or “normal” way to react; we react in different ways. Also, the circumstances and context of the abuse influence what your situation may look like. Regardless what your reactions are, the emotions can be intense and difficult to deal with. On this page we give some information that we hope can be useful to you. We hope that it can help you to support the survivor in moving on in life in a respectful way and that it can help you to handle your own reactions and feelings.  

At this moment you may have various doubts and feelings. Maybe you find it difficult to know what to say or what to do? Maybe you feel anxious and/or overwhelmed by the situation, and maybe you yourself feel unsafe due to the circumstances? Maybe you feel very angry? Maybe it feels like life isn’t the same as it used to be before this happened? Maybe you feel very sad? Maybe you even feel shame or guilt about what happened? Maybe you feel like you haven’t been able to help the survivor so far? Or maybe you feel something else, that is not mentioned here? The doubts and feelings that you may experience, whatever they are, are understandable reactions to a very severe situation that the survivor – and indirectly you as well – have been exposed to.  

What happened? 

The person who has experienced severe abuse may be a family member, your partner, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, or someone else who you are close to. We will refer to this person as the survivor, as it is someone who has survived something terrible and extremely unjust. Sometimes the word “victim” is also used. Maybe the survivor is a human rights defender, maybe he or she was suddenly stopped, abused in the local community or taken away? Maybe he or she knew about the threat of being abused, or maybe this was not the case? Maybe more people in the local community experienced severe abuse? Maybe you witnessed what happened to the survivor, or witnessed other survivors being abused? Maybe you were abused yourself or found yourself in a very difficult situation linked to reporting or something else? 

Often the survivor will need help and support to move on in life. We will consider ways in which you as someone who is close to a survivor can care for and support the survivor. Social support from people who are close to us is one of the best types of support we can receive.  

Human rights violations are prohibited by international human rights law. Severe abuse is considered illegal by international human rights law. Human rights are rights to which all human beings are entitled. Because you are a human being, you have human rights. Every person is born with human rights. International human rights treaties affirm that every individual has dignity and physical integrity, and that these should never be violated. 

The human rights are among others stated in the document the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. Every human being has the right to life, to liberty, and to freedom of expression. Human rights prohibit all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. People whose rights have been brutally disrespected – survivors – also have specific rights. These are described in more detail under the heading The right to redress and rehabilitation.  

Despite international human rights law and all the work that has been done around the world to prevent human rights violations, we know that a lot of human rights violations happen in the world today. Also, although survivors have the right to redress and rehabilitation, this help is not always 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. We hope that the resources that we provide on this page can be helpful in situations where other forms of help and support are not available.  

The perpetrators are guilty

The human rights violation that the survivor has been exposed to never is the fault of the survivor or person(s) who involuntarily had to witness the abuse. The only ones who are guilty are those who have committed the crime of severely abusing another human being. What happened to the survivor is prohibited by international human rights law and totally unacceptable. The perpetrator is guilty, not the survivor. Despite this, sometimes, the survivor may still feel shame and even guilt linked to what happened to them. And sometimes people who are close to a survivor may have such feelings of shame and guilt too. Sometimes people who are close to a survivor may consider the survivor as guilty or partly guilty for what happened to her or him. We want you to remember that the survivor is never guilty or responsible in some way for what happened. 

Sometimes it does not feel right to talk 

Feelings of shame and guilt can sometimes be a reason why it does not feel right to talk about what happened. It can also be too painful and difficult to talk about it, both for the survivor and for you who are close to the survivor.  Sometimes it can also be dangerous to talk about it, both for the survivor and for people who are close to the survivor. Sometimes survivors want to protect the people close to them by not telling them about the abuse. If the survivor does not want to talk about what happened, you should respect this. It is the survivor who decides if she or he wants to talk about it or not. Also, it can be very difficult and painful to talk about the terrible things that happened to someone we care about. Being there for the survivor and making her or him know that you still care about her or him in the same way as before can be a good way to support the survivor. Believing that what the survivor tells you is true, can be important. Also, being respectful for the survivors’ needs and creating – as far as it is possible – a good and stable environment for the survivor can be helpful on its own.   

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

In the following, you can find more information on central topics related to human rights, trauma and about taking the first steps to move on in life.  
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 aimed at assisting the survivor in taking steps to move on in life. In the next part we will focus on self-care, on some grounding exercises that you as someone who is close to a survivor can do together with the survivor or by yourself. Grounding exercises can help you to come back to the present, to the here and now, and to feel a little bit safer and calmer, for as far as it is possible within the context that you are in.  

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 have included a list of different organisations and websites that work with either advocacy or with direct support to survivors in different parts of the world.  

We hope that these resources will be helpful.  

Best wishes, 

The HHRI team