Supporting Female Survivors of Sexualized Violence

The Jiyan Foundation offers gender-specific medical and psychological care to women and girls at its centers and by means of mobile teams. Since 2015 we have also run a trauma clinic for those who have returned from ISIS captivity.

The sewing machines are whirring. Seven women sit in a classroom, each feeding a piece of brightly colored fabric through a sewing machine. Their teacher walks between the rows of machines, giving instructions and encouragement to the women.

They are patients at the Jiyan Foundation trauma clinic for women in Sulaymaniyah province. Twice a week they attend a two-hour sewing class with a local tailor. “The vocational classes help our clients develop perspectives for the future. They can use new skills to earn money when they leave the clinic,” says Lavan Omar, a psychotherapist at the clinic. “This is an important part of surviving traumatic experiences, and regaining control of their lives.”

Outpatient support is not enough

For women who have experienced severe sexualized violence such as systematic rape and enslavement by ISIS fighters, outpatient psychosocial support for an hour or two a week is not enough. This is why the Jiyan Foundation set up the clinic: Women receive round-the-clock support there. They can leave their daily chores and stresses behind and focus on getting better. They are looked after by an all-female team of medical doctors, psychotherapists, physiotherapists and nurses. All services are free of charge, thanks to funding from MISEREOR.

Most women at the clinic have physical health issues related to their abuse; these include localized pains, gynecological problems, and chronic bladder infections. Many cry a lot when they first come, others have concentration problems and keep forgetting simple things. Most have difficulty sleeping and suffer from flashbacks and nightmares.

Combining individual and group therapy

To help the women recover from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, our team offers individual and group therapy. Individual therapy helps staff understand each woman, and develop a treatment plan tailored to her needs. In group therapy, patients can connect with others who have survived similar abuse. “Being around other women decreases their anxiety,” says Ms. Omar. “And it makes it easier for them to be apart from their family and home.”

Partners and other family members are welcome to come for visits and are often included in the therapeutic process. If the women have children they can bring them along to stay with them. If needed, the girls and boys also receive therapeutic support. Our staff offer art, play, and group therapy for them.

Helping women help themselves

An average day for women being treated in the clinic also includes activities such as yoga and gardening, as well as relaxation classes. “We support the women in learning to help themselves, by teaching them techniques to regulate their stress and cope with feelings of shame,” says Ms. Omar. “And in the vocational classes we motivate them to learn new skills.”

Most patients stay for four weeks, but this can be extended to two or three months. After they leave, many women continue therapy – either at a Jiyan Foundation center or with our mobile teams, who offer mental health services in camps for those who fled from ISIS. “When they arrive at the clinic, the women look sad and are dressed in black. But when they leave they are like different people: They are happy and hopeful,” says Ms. Omar.

How we helped Leila*

When Leila first came to the Jiyan Foundation in April 2018, she was very distressed.

“She kept touching her head and complaining about a headache,” says Aveen Aziz, psychotherapist at the women’s clinic. “She avoided eye contact and she had very negative thoughts. ‘I will never get better’, she said.”

Leila had been caught by ISIS fighters and held as a sex slave for months. After her escape, she sought help from the Jiyan Foundation because she had nightmares and flashbacks.

Leila spent three months at our clinic. She joined the stabilization and art therapy group, and had individual therapy. She also took sports, relaxation and sewing classes. During her time at the clinic, Leila’s condition stabilized and this helped her take charge of her healing. After she left, Leila returned to the camp where she lives in and now attends weekly psychotherapy at our center in Duhok.

Leila is learning to overcome her negative thoughts. She is determined to take control of her life. She sews and sells clothes to earn money, and she also works as a hairdresser. “Leila is a lot better now,” says Ms. Aziz. “She is in the final stages of her therapy.”