How to deal with the pain of others – Tips for educators, facilitators and researchers

Nosipho Twala

How to deal with the pain of others – Tips for educators, facilitators and researchers

My work involves changing and challenging patriarchal norms that support violence and the means it uses to thrive in society. We’ve established that patriarchy uses violence to control women. As a gender activist and feminist, I have always been intrigued by the issue of violence and how it is normalised in our society. I am perturbed that the issue of violence, especially Gender-Based Violence (GBV) becomes public discourse only when there’s been a gruesome incident. Initially, our Gender Equality Programme focused on domestic violence. But, we soon realised violence is entrenched in institutions and organisations, and in all levels of our society. The violence is physical, emotional, financial and very much gendered.

On average, one in five South African women older than 18 have experienced physical violence. Thousands of women and children are psychologically harmed by gender-based violence and suffer long-term trauma and harm to their lives.

Our Gender Programme work addresses inequality, labour rights issues and violence and harassment at the workplace. The objective is to link the lived experiences and working conditions of women and ensure they are equal and pleasurable. At the community level, we support activists and stakeholders to come together and find the best solutions for dealing with their issues.

We create unique spaces for our target groups to collectively deal with GBV and other issues affecting working women, men and non-gender conforming persons. People in these spaces feel respected, valued and safe to experiment with the different approaches for building ownership. They realise that the answers to their problems are within them. And when the space is safe, people feel free to share. As a result, painful and troubling stories emerge. 
The women who attend our meetings have linked sexual harassment to their rights to safety, promotion and decent work. Many women feel they still need to do certain things to access decent working conditions, jobs or a promotion. The women working in the retail and domestic sectors were the first to voice the issue of sexual harassment to us. Thereafter women in other sectors felt encouraged to speak out, and we realised the problem is pervasive.
For domestic and migrant workers, sexual harassment is the most peculiar.
The workplace for domestic workers is also the private home and space of their employers. A domestic worker who works alone in someone’s home then becomes her own shop steward. It’s difficult for her to report abuses because she would be accusing a perpetrator who is in his or her own home and therefore in a more powerful position. And often the perpetrator of sexual harassment is the madam’s husband or a family relative. The domestic worker who complains to the madam may not be automatically believed because she is the outsider. If this worker manages to lodge the case with the union or at a police station, she’ll then likely experience secondary victimisation. Also, care work in itself isn’t valued by everyone, meaning you’re likely dealing with a boss who thinks the domestic worker should feel lucky to have the job. 
Migrant workers are reluctant to approach authorities and report the harassment because they might not have the legally required permits. When they experience harassment or unfair conditions, the migrant workers will often change jobs to avoid the radar of authorities and to escape callous employers. It’s a relentless cycle.
One story narrated by a participant in our program speaks to the horrific working conditions for many migrant workers. She is a rape survivor. She feels the nurses at the hospital denied her critical services after the ordeal due to xenophobia. She says the nurses asked what she did to the perpetrators to attract such brutality. At that stage, she was victimised by the people she thought would protect her. How then can such a survivor believe it when we tell her that our Constitution protects everyone? Still, we encourage survivors to report any violence so that we can have the information on record and also connect them with relevant support organisations. But, it’s not easy to find pro bono legal representation or organisations that can walk the long walk with survivors of abuse, let alone undocumented migrants. So I remain entangled in the process of providing support, yet there are many organisations that have the required expertise to do so. 

Dealing with the trauma of others

 Even though I am not a trained counsellor, the survivor will often come to me for support. I can’t turn her away, and so I continue to offer the support I can and to help her to trust the process. A person who’s been violated needs to be believed and not blamed. She needs steadfast support because the healing journey is lonely.
From our work with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), we’ve learned that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and that the cases aren’t surfacing enough. So, we’ve been speaking to women about sexual harassment and encouraging them to speak out. And because we’re doing the education, we’re the first people to hear about the abuses. The women come to us traumatized and afraid.

Often the horrific stories emerge not because of the training we provide, but because the survivors feel safe to speak out in our spaces.

Besides sexual harassment, women are dealing with many other forms of violence in their private spaces. Some of the violence they experienced as children. I could be speaking to participants at a meeting about a sexuality issue that’s supposed to be fun and pleasurable, but for some people it triggers a painful memory. The women cry, but we don’t shut them up. We let them experience the moment as it unfolds.
Culturally, it’s considered stoical to hold in our more tender emotions. Society has taught us that if you cry, we hug you and encourage you to stop crying.  I think we need to let people that are hurting cry.
As a facilitator, I have learned to hold the deafening silence that sometimes follows the storytelling. I need to hold those emotions and not neglect the other people in the room. Also, I integrate mind and body therapy that help survivors to deal with the trauma of violence. These tools help me to hold and calm a traumatised person.
The distress we witness intrudes on my personal sense of security and wellbeing. The term for this situation is “vicarious trauma”. Sometimes called “compassion fatigue”, vicarious trauma describes the phenomenon generally associated with the cost of caring for others.

Definition - Vicarious trauma the emotional residue of exposure that counsellors have from working with people as they're hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.

I am a woman who is exposed to suffering and distressful material during my professional or research work. It’s easy to internalise other people’s trauma and this I know intimately. The question is, how can I as a facilitator become more resilient?

I have learned the impact and symptoms of vicarious trauma and recognise that I need to deal with it. I have found immense help in psychotherapy, social and organisational support and self-care.
Dealing with the pain of others is difficult, but the emotions I endure remind me of the importance of our work. Supporting others has helped me not only to grow but to strengthen my emotional resilience to respond effectively to the vulnerable.
The various GBV initiatives in South Africa have gradually become impactful and it is encouraging. I acknowledge the #TotalShutDown campaign and the increased GBV discourse. More women are speaking out and there’s now a sense of urgency to end gender-based violence. Women want accountability, access to equal opportunities and to live safe lives.

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