Borders of Acceptance: The stigma of sexual assault among refugee women 

Every day for months, the Bhutanese women of Vicky Bradley’s knitting group would walk home from their meetings, arms laden with bags of wool. And every day their families, a community of unlocked doors and no secrets, would ask what they had done at the International Rescue Committee. Crafts in tow, the women would simply respond: “Oh, Vicky’s knitting group.”

For these refugee women, under the guise of yarn and needles, Bradley’s group meetings provided an outlet for sharing stories of violent abuse and sexual trauma.

Bradley, an independently licensed social worker and former clinician for the IRC, had to ensure a productive space where women could talk about their experiences without the pressures of reporting back to family. Thus, the knitting group was born. Those on the inside called it Vicky’s “talking group.”

“They fear the stigma,” says Bradley, who often found the greatest challenges not in the abuse itself, but in the victim’s apprehension to open up about it.

More troubling still, it is the sexual nature of these assaults which make women so fearful of exposure. Bradley says victims often talk openly of the massacres, beheadings, bombings and physical assaults but rarely of their own sexual traumas.

According to the UNHCR’s “Guidelines on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence Against Refugees,” the true scale of sexual violence towards refugees is unknown due to under-reporting.  Many sexual violence cases, especially those among women from culturally conservative communities, will go unreported due to societal pressures to keep quiet.

“For the Bhutanese/Nepalese,” Bradley says, “if you were raped, even though people knew that it was the hands of the military or the police, you still had to somehow convince people you hadn't been because if you didn't, you were considered unworthy of marriage in some cases.”

For the women under Bradley’s care and for vulnerable female refugee populations globally, the threat of being ostracized or unfit for marriage is overwhelming, particularly when marriage itself is often their only escape route.

Young girls in Jordan’s Za’atari Camp, for example, will often be married off to older men before they even reach 16 in order to secure financial stability for their families. A 2013 survey report of Syrian refugee children done by UNHCR found that 51 percent of female respondents had been married before the age of 18.

“I think what's very important is to understand, within these different cultures, what it means to have been raped and to what degree can one or can one not talk about it,” Bradley says.

This makes the recovery process difficult for displaced women living and receiving care abroad. Bradley says it can take four to five years to see significant differences through treatment and therapy. In the meantime, victims of sexual abuse suffer from a wide range of PTSD symptoms which inhibit their participation in group activities and recovery.

“The most significant symptom is severe sleep disturbance. Frequent flashbacks. Many are terrified to fall asleep,” Bradley says. “With the lack of sleep comes severe depression. So a lack of energy, a lack of appetite, a lack of desire to get going makes it difficult to participate in all the programs they’re expected to participate in, like ESL classes or job classes and acculturation classes.”

Some victims who suffer unwittingly from panic attacks will often mistake their episodes for heart attacks and check themselves into emergency rooms. Symptoms of psychosis, like hallucinations and voices, will go undisclosed even to family members.

For refugee women on the move, the anxiety from forced assimilation to new environments and attempts to maintain their own cultural norms leaves them even more vulnerable.

Leila Hudson, a professor at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, has been following the journey of multiple Syrian families as they cross into Europe. She says the close proximity and a lack of personal space along the treacherous routes out of the Middle East exacerbate tensions, especially for women and children.

“You hear this story over and over again of women and girls who try not to eat and drink so they don't have to use the communal bathroom,” Hudson says.

Amnesty International released a report early this year detailing the alleged accounts of 40 refugee women travelling from Turkey to Greece to the Balkans. Many women complained of dirty and unhygienic conditions in makeshift camps, as well as abuse along “every stage of the journey,” including assault, exploitation and sexual harassment. Although Hudson’s informants never mentioned any specific incidents of sexual violence, the conditions and tensions along the route made the journey harrowing nonetheless.

“Your whole understanding of home and personal space and territory is completely uprooted along with everything else and that leads to arguments, to shouting, to intimidation and occasionally to physical fighting,” Hudson says.

It is no wonder, then, that the need for community inclusion is so essential for refugee women, particularly those with families and children.

“People are very wary of everyone that they don't know,” Hudson says. “And you look for linguistic and cultural similarities and approachability to create these sort of ad hoc little communities or kin groups on the road that you can count on.”

Women assimilating abroad, Bradley says, often found that comfort in each other. When one woman had the courage to speak, others often followed.

“We had a woman who finally came forward and said, ‘Yes, I need help,’” Bradley says. “And suddenly everybody in that community knew, 'Oh, if you go to IRC and tell them that you're being beaten on, guess what? All these things happen.’ You get help. And it was always helpful when somebody had the courage to do that.”

Some may see these women and their knitting wool or refugee camp-bound teenagers in rented wedding gowns and acknowledge a certain distance in experience.

Some in America will look towards these women, their stories of abuse, their cultural context and say “how fortunate we are to live here.”

But statistics tell us that the majority of sexual crimes go unreported within our own borders. Of the 1 in 5 women who will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime, less than 40 percent will report it. Abusers walk free here with the same degree of impunity of any other violent criminal when their crimes go uninvestigated and the culture of victim blaming remains unchecked

Whether it happened in a dorm room or an open field, the burden of sexual assault remains a heavy weight upon women regardless of circumstance. For now, there just aren’t enough knitting groups for the collective stigma.

Jennifer is a culture enthusiast and traveller who moonlights as a fully-functioning graduate student in journalism and Middle Eastern studies. She never 'bottles it up' although sometimes her friends probably wish she did. On any given day you'll find her panicking over her thesis, talking about finally getting that dog she's too busy for, and not writing her own bios. Lebanese beer is her jam.