Dear friends and colleagues“Victims are put through the wringer of having their credibility questioned, their integrity questioned, their behavior questioned, so that they are the focus of the investigation rather than the offender’s behavior.”
Rebecca Campbell, Community Psychologist, Michigan State University
As the International Women´s Day approaches, HHRI wishes to call the attention to the need for greater awareness and understanding as to the characteristics of traumatic memory, and the necessity of taking this information into consideration in the different situations in which victims are questioned about violations and threats, that is as part of medical examination, in public courts, at college campuses and by media. By educating personnel engaged in this kind of work on trauma and memory those who speak up and report the assault may hopefully have a better chance of being listened to and having a fair trial.
What may seem as discrepancies in the survivor´s testimony often reinforce the prevailing tendency to doubt sexual assault victims. Trauma survivors frequently have fragmented recollections and difficulty with some of the details. This can sometimes make it difficult for the person to tell the story in a consistent way. It is therefore of essence to understand that the victim may be trying to make coherence out of an incredibly disorganized and painful set of elements and experiences.
To understand the mechanics of how memories may seemingly become inconsistent, we must know the way the brain functions in response to trauma. The intense fear that comes from experiencing a traumatic event, alerts the victim of a threat to her survival. This immediately, and without any conscious deliberation, activates the amygdala —an area of the “older” brain involved in both fear processing and stress response. When the amygdala starts sending out alerts, humans —as well as animals— go into survival mode, putting the brain and body on high alert. These reactions are automatic responses, and include both hormonal and behavioral patterns, but may also have some individual variation.
When a person is in this state of high stress, it is natural to focus her attention on the most immediate aspect of the threat —at the expense of other details—. Therefore, the peripheral details fade away, in terms of our attention. Extreme stress may in some individuals, especially in those who have been traumatized several times at an early age, lead to a form of stress reaction where the person “disconnects”, that is, psychologically, escapes the situation and thus becomes less aware and attentive. This is often termed “dissociation”, and describes the situation with low level of consciousness, indicating less likelihood that information be encoded in the way it would otherwise be. This has an impact on what we are able to recall after the event has taken place, it diminishes our memory of the traumatic event.
What further aggravates the situation is what is termed “mental avoidance”, that is, the tendency to avoid anything that resembles or triggers the traumatic event. This means avoidance of activities, places and thoughts about the event. This is also one of the “hallmarks” of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Fragmented memories and difficulties in recalling memories, must be understood in the context of dissociation, physiological reactions and avoidance. The problems that victims may face in such situations, and their difficulties in replying “adequately” to questions during trials, may be the reason for which they are discredited or disbelieved.
By being aware of how human memory often functions in the aftermath of traumatic events, —including the pain involved in revisiting such events for the victim—, is vital for law enforcement, family members, friends and others involved with survivors. This may contribute to a better understanding and reduce risk of additional stressors in relation to narrating difficult experiences.
As a closing remark, the most important take-home lesson —from work with women who have survived severe human rights abuses and are facing challenges in the care system as well as in the legal system—, is the following: for a fair process to take place, a good dialogue, room for listening and exploring in respectful ways, and showing respect to the dignity and integrity of the person subjected to violence, are of utmost importance.
And finally, our main focus must always be on the prevention of such violence, on combating that these abuses happen and on the process of holding those responsible to account.
The training manual Mental health and gender-based violence: Helping survivors of sexual violence in conflict also known as “HHRI GBV Manual” is a tool on approaches and techniques that address the psychological needs of survivors of gender-based violence. It is a tool to approach survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence in contexts of disasters, conflicts and emergency situations, where access to health professionals with psychological or psychiatric expertise usually is very limited.
The Arabic, Russian and Spanish versions of our training manual is available for free. If you would like a hard copy, please send us an e-mail explaining what kind of work you are doing and why would you need the manual it. Please note that complementary to the GBV Manual, we have developed a tool box which you also can accessed for free in English, Spanish, Korean, Georgian and Romanian if you visit our GBV manual web page.