Sexual Violence and War

Sexual Violence and War

There has been so much in the news about the Middle East, especially Syria, and, at the end of each work day, I am anxious to see what has been happening in the world. I must admit that lately it seems harder and harder to listen to the horrors taking place. You see, my Father’s parents were Christians who came from Lebanon before its independence from Syria. He was born and raised in an Arabic-speaking community in Peoria, Illinois, and did not speak English until he went to school. I was raised with a strong sense of the traditional cultural values brought from the Syria of the early 1900s.

Now, with the ongoing news reports from the Middle East of refugees, displaced persons, and those being overrun by occupying forces, there are numerous references to the hardships and losses taking place, including sexual violence. And, the Middle East is not the only place in the world with such heart-wrenching events taking place.  From the security of my living room, I see these events with the equivalent of a long-range lens and, when it is too much, I can turn away and go on with other aspects of my life.

However, for the survivors of sexual violence that make it to safety and seek care, there is no turning it off or turning away. And, for the interpreters, there is a similar issue.

Research shows that, historically, a great deal of variation exists around the world when it comes to the nature of war-related sexual violence inflicted on children, women, and men (yes, men are also targeted victims).  See, for example, this research by Elisabeth J. Wood.

That again is the global and distant perspective. Bringing it to the individual level, when a survivor walks into an office and must tell her or his story to a health care provider or attorney, interpreting for sexual topics can be emotionally distressing. For both the survivor and the interpreter, there is a complex inter-relationship of cultural, emotional, linguistic, logistical, and personal forces raging at once. The interpreter helps to create an environment of safety out of all of this for the client.

Taboos and embarrassment abound regarding the discussion of sex-related topics. The survivor may be dealing with multiple issues – from privacy, guilt, shame, family honor, violation, anger, betrayal, denial, sorrow, to pain (physical, psychological, and maybe spiritual), and more.  It requires a great deal of trust in the interpreter for a survivor to tell his or her story.  Clients are in distress, and an interpreter, while professional, is also compassionate, and must be able to stay focused, not feel the need to “solve” the problem, not over-identify with the survivor, and avoid feeling overwhelmed – a tall task and an essential one.

While I no longer have immediate family members in Lebanon, hearing the news stories can still feel very personal even from a distance. Repeatedly hearing such stories first hand can have only an even more profound effect upon interpreters. Interpreters need organizational support, respect from providers as members of a care-giving team, and special training in self-care.  Without the proper support and self-care, interpreters, too, can become terribly distressed and even traumatized themselves. VOL exists to provide that support and training at a larger level. Yet in the end, each interpreter must do the self-care work alone.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VOL.

About the author:

Dr. Patricia Maloof is a VOL Board member and medical anthropologist who works for a national nonprofit charitable immigration legal organization.


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