I can hardly begin to explain the impact of what happened to me. If you have never been tortured, never been forced to make a dangerous journey or to leave your child, you can’t understand what it does to a human being.
For me, the damage was so great that I stopped speaking. I had no voice to tell what had happened to me. I became a baby once more. I was only able to learn to speak again with the help of a speech therapist and a charity called Freedom from Torture.
I was living in Africa with my family when my life changed overnight. My parents were assassinated for speaking against the government and its treatment of farmers. After I was detained and tortured, I lost all hope for my safety and that of my daughter. I was forced to leave without her; she was two years old.
Today I watch the news and witness the horrific journeys that thousands of people make to flee violence and conflict. I know that among them are men, women and children who have been tortured. But they won’t carry signs saying, “I am a torture victim.” I doubt very much that they will even tell others about it.
For me, and many others in Survivors Speak OUT (SSO), an activist network based in the U.K., there is no other choice but to make these dangerous journeys by any means possible. At the time, troubles on the road ahead don’t matter: It is a matter of do or die.
For a woman, such journeys pose specific challenges. The torture, often sexual in nature, may have taken place just days or weeks earlier. So while you are still suffering from the physical harm of sexual violence, you cannot access the medical care or treatment you need.
Women have to compete against men to get the last space on a boat or lorry. You are manhandled, pushed and groped. Men can touch you anywhere and everywhere. And if, like me, you have to rely on a male stranger to help you cross a river at night, you are scared of what he might do to you. Who will hear if he attacks you? Afterward he can just toss your body in the river for animal feed.
Some women have children born out of rape. Though they may love their baby, that child is a daily reminder of the man or men who raped you. What will you say when your child asks who their father is? What life will that child have if the community knows how they were conceived?
It is hard to talk about the things that may have been done to you – it is just too painful and, honestly, too shameful. Your community disowns you. You are a marked woman. At the time, you feel like no one will ever love you again. And if you find a good man who does, he will be disowned, too.
Your thoughts really can’t keep up with what’s happening, past and present. I don’t know how the brain and body can cope.
The one thing you never think about is disclosing your torture to an official, an immigration officer or a medical worker. Instead, you call on all your resilience to hold it together and to find somewhere you can feel safe.
Along the journey, whatever route you take, you are vulnerable, but you have to keep moving for fear of getting stuck where you don’t want to be. You have lost trust in other human beings, which means you also lose trust in well-meaning agencies or officials who might be able to help. You might not even know how much you have been traumatized; to realize this in the middle of your journey could do more harm than good.
When I fled, I did not know I was coming to the U.K. The first time I arrived, I was immediately removed. I can’t tell you what I was thinking – other than that I was deeply fearful, for my daughter who I had left behind and for myself. I had to make another difficult journey and, eventually, arrived in the U.K. for a second time. I thought that was the end of my journey to safety, but it was the start of another traumatic journey through the asylum process.
Many women who have survived torture and arrive in the U.K. seeking protection find it difficult to disclose their torture, especially to male officials. And often when when we do so, our accounts are disbelieved. It is ironic that the British Foreign Office is keen to tell other countries to believe women when they recall their accounts of sexual violence, yet the Home Office will not apply the same approach to women seeking asylum in the U.K.
Some women are able to provide medical evidence of torture, via forensic specialists like Freedom from Torture, yet this is often dismissed by decision makers. Many women find themselves detained for immigration purposes, treated as criminals. All of this reinforces feelings of fear and shame and retraumatizes women who have already been through so much suffering.
Torture has an impact not just on yourself as a direct victim but on all those around you. This is a form of secondary trauma suffered by family members who live it through the survivor; they, too, need support to recover.
Governments must do more to offer safe and legal routes to survivors of torture, so they are not forced to make these long, frightening and dangerous journeys. Resettlement opportunities should be given to far more people.
In September, the United Nations General Assembly will host a high-level meeting to address the refugee crisis and bring together a more humane response. It will be followed by a meeting hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama to secure commitment from member states to offer more resettlement. This is an opportunity to deliver not just pledges but meaningful action to support refugees.
But women and girls must be at the center of discussions, including in New York. Not just for our testimony – we already know so much about the horrors women and girls face – but for our views on solutions, too. It would show we are valued for ourselves, that as torture survivors we have precious knowledge and wisdom to offer.
You can follow the Survivors Speak OUT network at @SSOonline.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women and Girls Hub.