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. It was as if I became a baby once more. It was only after accessing support through a speech therapist that I learnt to speak again. And I’ve not stopped since.
I am a member of Survivors Speak OUT (SSO), an activist network of torture survivors supported by the charity Freedom from Torture. We speak out against torture and its impact, including through the UK asylum system.
All our members have been tortured and many of us have had no other choice but to make dangerous journeys, by any means available.
For a woman, such journeys pose specific challenges. Your torture, often sexual in nature, may have taken place just days or weeks before you are forced to flee. But, on the journey, there is unlikely to be access to the medical care or treatment that you need while you are still suffering from the physical harm of sexual violence.
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? Who will know if he were to toss your body in the river for animal feed.
The one thing you never think about is disclosing your torture to an official, an immigration officer or a medical worker you may encounter on your journey. You lose 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 traumatised; to realise this in the middle of your journey could do more harm than good. So, instead, you call on all your resilience to hold it together and to find somewhere you can feel safe.
When you arrive in the UK, it is not surprising that many women asylum applicants find it difficult to disclose their experiences, especially to male officials. And often 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 UK. All women deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
It takes a long time to make your way through the maze of your past. Yet here I am, a woman refugee and survivor of torture, shouting to be understood. I don’t want sympathy, I want empathy. Sympathy is to show a sorrowful face. It is empathy that spurs on action and looks for a better way to help.
I may have lost some dignity and the respect I was once treated with, but I am here today standing up to say to you that in all that you do, always remember the words and contributions of women survivors of torture. Our pasts may have left us in shock, pain, despair and separation but we are resilient and I have learned to have acceptance, resolution and recognition. I now speak out against torture and its impact and that takes courage and it means that I control my own narrative and for me, that is important.
Our key demands for MPs on International Women’s Day are:
The Government must act to offer safe and legal routes to vulnerable people, including survivors of torture, so they are not forced to make long and dangerous journeys.
Home Office staff must act with greater sensitivity towards vulnerable people including women torture survivors and understand why we might be reluctant to disclose torture.
There should be no detention of torture survivors in immigration removal centres. People must be allowed to remain in the community with their children and family members.
Tracy N'dovi is a member of the Survivors Speak OUT (SSO) network. Follow the Survivors Speak OUT network on Twitter at @SSOonline
A version of this blog was originally published on News Deeply.