Survivors and advocates call for the trauma of gender-based violence to be recognized as a wound

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Lula Dembele was sexually assaulted and raped between the ages of three and four.

The memories of her abuse are not vivid but resemble snapshots, including the view from her bed on the veranda of her house, the heavy presence of her abuser on her, and her violence towards her mother.

It started after her mother and father separated, when her mother was courted by a lovely man who she ended up moving in with.

Ms Dembele said the man started grooming her early on and the abuse started while her mother worked evenings.

“Apparently I started telling my mom that there were monsters in my room at night,” she said in a statement which was also posted on social media.

“I remember being taken to the children’s hospital for a checkup. I remember sitting in the waiting room with my mother, feeling nervous.”

She says she vividly remembers having to lie down on a cold table while a female doctor examined her.

Ms Dembele says it was “either that day or soon after my mother’s worst fear was confirmed” – that she had been raped.

Ms Dembele says her mother is the hero of her story, but she remembers the judgment she felt against her mother and against herself.

“I remember feeling like I wanted to protect my mother from their judgment. My mother was fighting against so many barriers, internal and external, trying to act in my best interests and she was still being judged.”

It’s part of a statement Ms Dembele shared online to help remove the burden of violence and shame on victims.

Part of sharing her story, Ms. Dembele says, is about demonstrating how suburban and mundane settings can be when these kinds of life-changing traumas occur.

Sixteen days of activism

Ms Dembele is now a survivor activist and one of the voices of a new campaign against gender-based violence and the need to treat trauma as injury.

Survivor lawyer Lula Dembele is adding her voice to the campaign.(Provided: Lula Dembele)

“Trauma is a physiological response that occurs when we have a high risk environment like in war zones,” she said.

“And this is what happens to the bodies of women and children when they are exposed to constant abuse and violence in the home, and we need this to be recognized as an injury by our health system and by our justice system. “

The 16 Days of Activism launched today with NSW Domestic Violence, Illawarra Women’s Health Center and Doctors Against Violence Against Women involves eight community leaders alongside eight survivor advocates.

The group wants gender-based violence trauma to be recognized as an injury in the same way it is for first responders and soldiers.

The campaign calls on surviving victims to have access to a range of evidence-based, trauma-specific therapies through the Medicare Benefits program.

He also wants 20 community-based trauma recovery centers for women to be established across Australia and ensure mandatory education and training programs on trauma and gender-based violence for all healthcare and justice workers.

It is based on an open letter from more than 100 health and education experts published in September calling on the federal government to adopt nine measures in response to domestic and family violence.

Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Williams folded her arms in front of a dark wall.
Psychiatrist Karen Williams hopes the 16 days of activism will remind the government of the need to do more.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Clinical psychiatrist and founder of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women Karen Williams said she hoped the campaign would highlight family violence against women and children as another form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said it was essential to recognize trauma care through the Medicare benefits program.

“You really envision a complete overhaul of the way we think about trauma,” she said.

“We have to recognize that this is a mental health problem that sometimes requires hospital care or intensive psychological care, just like PTSD in a soldier.”

Dr Williams said victims often felt the health and justice systems failed to recognize the impact of violence on them.

“Often times, women who have been traumatized by the violence can forget about the incidents and present themselves as shaking, may miss certain details, and this will be used against them,” she said.

“If the justice system were aware of trauma, it could understand why women come to the stand in a particular way and do not reject their testimony.

Bipartite support at the post-traumatic rehabilitation center

In April, a bipartisan federal report on family and domestic violence urged the Morrison government to fund a women’s trauma recovery center project in Illawarra.

At the time, Inquiry Chairman and Liberal and National MP for Queensland Andrew Wallace said it was too late to be included in May’s federal budget, but could be included in the outlook economic and financial mid-year in December.

“The committee felt that this was an exceptional approach in trying to tackle the scourge of family, domestic and sexual violence,” he said.

“And if that is successful, the committee has recommended funding for a five-year pilot program and if it is successful, we think it’s something that should be rolled out across the country.”

First Nations Trauma Healing Awareness

Women Illawarra’s Indigenous advocate, Ash Johnstone, is also supporting the campaign.

She said she hoped it would also educate First Nations about the knowledge of how to heal from trauma.

Young woman smiles at a camera
Ash Johnstone is one of the community leaders participating in the 16 Days of Action on Gender-Based Violence.(Provided: Twitter)

“Our communities are the best experts on how they can recover from these issues, so it is very important to have organizations led by First Nations.”

“Create a sense of security”

Lula Dembele said that a trauma-informed health and justice system would create a sense of security for victims.

“So they don’t see it as a threat, making sure you give people choices, still allowing people to have this agency,” she said.

“Because that’s what was taken away from them in the abuse process.

“If you have access to trauma programs and therapies that help you regulate your body and regulate your fight or flight response and regulate your emotional maintenance, you can have a more balanced life.”

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