At the Migrants’ Rights Network, a huge part of our work is about unpicking language and rhetoric. I want to use this platform on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to discuss the ramifications of language around specific forms of violence, and how these narratives can exacerbate harms amongst those trying to navigate immigration systems.
Violence against women and girls (VAWG) manifests itself in many ways, these include sexual violence, female genital mutilation, psychological abuse or child marriage. According to the United Nations, it is one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world but is largely unreported.
I share my story today because I am a ‘survivor’ of sexual violence. That’s the first time I have ever stated that openly or publicly and it took about ten minutes for me to write that down. I was 18 when this happened and my life changed forever. I dropped out of university, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and spent about six months unable to get out of bed. I have spent every day of my entire adult life dealing with mental and physical pain as a result. This is called ‘masking’ and I’m somewhat of a master of it now.
I have been fortunate in many ways. I have been able to access medication, support and therapy, both through the NHS, privately and via some amazing community-based support which frankly doesn’t get enough recognition. While this has been at times difficult and there is definitely a lack of provision for many people trying to access trauma support, for some people with similar experiences to my own, support just isn’t there.
For refugees and asylum seekers seeking safety in the UK, many are left alone. Whether they experienced sexual violence in their origin country, during their dangerous journey or were victims of trafficking, many are faced with the harrowing experience of having their trauma reinforced when applying for asylum. I’ve heard lots of stories or information about immigration enforcement forcing people to give details of their experiences, and in lots of cases, they aren’t believed. They are gaslit, victim-blamed or called liars.
Speaking from my own experience, sometimes the trauma of an event can transpire the event itself. It can be compounded by the way you are treated afterwards. For me, I have internalised many of the reactions I received when I tried to share what happened to me. I was blamed and told it was my fault, rather than any accountability placed on the perpetrator or the socio-cultural factors that contributed to it. For asylum seekers, migrants and refugees, being treated this way by border officials can retraumatise or add to existing traumas. This state-run gaslighting and violence needs to end, and we cannot allow it to happen in our name.
After nine years, and a lot of therapy, I also want to address something that I’ve found incredibly difficult and frustrating: the language around how we talk about violence against women needs to change because our words do matter.
Personally, I’ve always had a huge issue with being called a ‘survivor’ of sexual violence. The way that PTSD works is the trauma essentially gets stuck in your brain and you are forced to relive it over, and over again. You don’t survive anything. The event, or in some cases, multiple events, are not confined to the past. You relive them constantly, and for some of us, you come to the realisation that you won’t ever get over what happened. You simply learn how to grow around what happened to you.
Of course, there are lots of people that don’t have an issue with this word. Unfortunately, many of my close friends and loved ones have experienced sexual and psychological abuse. It is not for me to dictate what the narrative should be, but I want to start a productive (and safe) conversation around how we talk about violence.
I also want to tackle the idea of being perceived as ‘brave’. As someone who has been through this, and carries it around with them every day, it feels patronising and makes me feel belittled. Instead of giving people patronising and unhelpful labels which inherently dictate how they should be feeling about their own experiences, we should let them define themselves and their own emotions. We need to listen.
After almost a decade, there are some words that I still cannot say. Or words that trigger me when I hear them and bring back memories of what happened to me. It hurts when people make jokes about these forms of violence or try to make light of it.
I also want to remind people that many of the kinds of violence that this awareness campaign is tackling are not just exclusive to cisgender women and girls. Non-binary people, trans men and women, and cisgender men can all be victims. What we have to do is tackle the patriarchal norms and structures that allow these actions and cultures to still be so prevalent in the world. If we want to do this, our solutions, language and movements cannot be exclusionary.
Words by Julia Tinsley-Kent, Policy Manager at the Migrants’ Rights Network