Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From victim to human rights defender

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From victim to human rights defender
6. juni 2008
Good news from a training programme in testimonial therapy in Varanasi, India.
The training programme was concluded by a ceremony in front of government head quarters where survivors of police torture were honoured after their testimonies had been read out to the public. The training programme is part of an RCT pilot study where brief therapy methods for use by community workers and non-professionals are tested. The process from theory to practice to political manifestation experienced in this training programme illustrates one of the major objectives of testimonial therapy: to empower the victim and support his or her development from victim to survivor to human rights defender.

The struggle against police torture and other organized types of violence in India is mostly centred around political and lawful initiatives. In the human rights organizations of India resources have been scant for providing short-term psychosocial assistance to survivors suffering from psychological problems. This type of assistance has mostly been provided by trained psychologists or psychiatrists in medical centres, which have been difficult to access for most of the survivors of torture. It is, therefore, necessary for the organizations working at the grass-roots level to develop their capacity for brief therapy assistance, which can be carried out by non-professional staff and offered to people all over the country and not only in the urban districts.

A healing down-to-earth approach

Dr. Inger Agger, Psychologist and RCT consultant here explains the approach being tested by community workers and human rights defenders from the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in Varanasi.

"Testimonial therapy has been used for survivors of human rights violations in different parts of the world during the last 25 years starting in Chile. By giving testimony about the torture, telling "the self suffering story"as they say in India, to an empathic listener who records the story, the survivor can heal his or her trauma and also use the testimony document in the struggle for justice".

First workshop

In May 2008 a workshop on testimonial therapy was organized with the joint collaboration of the RCT and PVCHR. In the workshop 12 human rights defenders from PVCHR were trained by Dr. Inger Agger and the participants thereafter took the testimonies of 23 survivors under supervision.

"During two sessions, one community worker acts as the interviewer while another community worker acts as the note-taker. Together with the survivor they create a coherent story about the human rights violations suffered by the survivor. They help the survivor remember the suffering and feel the emotions at that time and in the present. Corrections might be made before the testimony is prepared in elegant paper and signed by the survivor and the interviewer.As a new element in the testimonial method, each session was concluded by ten minutes of mindfulness meditation", says Agger.

At the third session, an honour ceremony is organized where the testimony is handed over to the survivor. If the survivor agrees this ceremony can be public and the testimonies of several survivors might be handed over on the same occasion. This happened in Varanasi where the PVCHR arranged for the survivors to gather in a ceremony in front of the District Government Head Quarters of Varanasi. The ceremony was widely covered by the local and national media.

The private becomes political

"I am very satisfied with the process. It has been an extremely creative experience to work together with PVCHR and develop an Indian version of the testimonial method. It was also very moving for me to attend the ceremony where the results of the training and the therapy were developed into social action", says Agger.

A copy of the testimony will be used for further advocacy with the acceptance of the survivor. The testimonies of survivors can also be used in folk school meetings, community meetings, programs related to human rights, as part of a people's movement and in workshops for the police to prevent torture.

Giving Voice

During the workshop a special manual for the use of Testimony Therapy in India was created. The title of this manual is "Giving Voice". The manual will be translated into Hindi.

The pilot study will be evaluated in order to see whether this method could be beneficial in other regions and other organisations.

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