Pavan Amara was raped as a teenager and that incident scarred her outlook about herself. The Indian-origin woman who grew up in north London couldn’t go to a doctor, face crowd and or even look at herself in the mirror or see her photographs.
Then one day she contacted 30 rape victims and realised that she was not the only one who has anxieties about her body and healthcare.
So she set up My Body Back, a project that supports women who have experienced sexual violence, focusing particularly on issues of body image and sexuality, and in this way was able to help them to reclaim their bodies as their own.
Since setting up the project, Amara, whose family comes from Kultan, near Amritsar, said she has received dozens of mails from Indian women who have gone through similar fate, and hoped one day she would be able to open a branch of My Body Back in India.
Excerpts from an e-mail interview with The Indian Diaspora:
Q. The My Body Back project is a noble and much needed concept. How the idea took shape and became a reality? Please share your journey? How did you find the courage?
A. I decided to do something that I wished someone had already done. I wanted to set up a clinic that would provide specialist health services for women who had experienced sexual violence. If I’m honest, the motivation was slightly selfish. I was attacked around a decade before, and though I’d managed to move on and live a pretty good life, I struggled with healthcare. I found it impossible to go to the GP for years after being raped, because the medical environment reminded me of the forensic testing suite I’d had to go to. I wanted the coil, but I couldn’t have it because I worried the invasive procedure would lead to me experiencing flashbacks of the attack. For the same reasons I didn’t go for STI testing or have cervical screening. The reason? Not my actions, but his.
I interviewed 30 other women who had experienced rape, about their access to healthcare. The results stunned me. More than half of the 30 I sampled from across the country said that being raped had left them feeling unable to attend cervical screening and seven said they hadn’t been for any STI testing since the attack Four of the 30 said they weren’t registered with a GP either. They needed to feel in control of their own bodies, they wanted clinicians who were specially trained. Women wanted to access healthcare in an environment where they could be honest about having been raped and its effects, but wouldn’t be told to go to the police and report it. Many of them weren’t mentally ready to face that court process but wanted their physical health intact. Time to help others It’s difficult to hear 30 women tell you exactly what they need, and do nothing.
So I set up the My Body Back Project to provide clinics for women who have experienced sexual violence. At the time, it sounded unrealistic – I had zero medical training, no money, no team. But it has worked out, with many good people helping me. In August, we started the world’s first sexual health clinic for rape survivors at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, which provides cervical screening, STI testing and contraceptive fitting.
Q. What has been the response to the clinic and what has been the feedback from the victims?
A. We've had really good feedback from women who use our project, although we're very open to hearing how we could improve further. From evaluation, we know that 96.7% of our service users said they found it 'very useful' and 100% would recommend our services to someone else to use.
Q. Is it possible for sexually abused women to fall in love with their bodies again considering that society is very unkind to women and not to the offender?
A. Yes. No body can take you away from yourself. No matter what people say or do, you are in total control of how you feel about yourself. You just have to realise that. In terms of what society says, who cares about that. Society can be like sheep, some people tend to blindly follow what everyone else says anyway, so women really should question how important society's opinion is. It's not important. Do what you want to do.
Q. How this clinic is different from the regular health centres?
A. We have created a different birthing pathway to ensure women who have experienced sexual violence receive the sensitive and specific care they need.
Q. Is there any plan to start a similar initiative in India which continues to witness terrible incidents of rapes across the country and women/girls face horrible time from police, hospital authorities and society?
A. Yes. It's got to the point where everyday I am receiving dozens of emails from Indian women, and I can't ignore them. So I know something has to be done, and I am certainly feeling the pressure every day. I really hope to meet this need and start an Indian branch of My Body Back Project one day, because it would be inhuman to say no. But all this takes time, especially if it's going to be done really well, which it has to be. This may not happen for a while and it may look like I'm not listening to women in other countries, but I am. I am listening and I am working on it, but work takes time and concentration, often for years. Trust me that I am doing it.
Q. Why did you feel the need for The Clit List that has all kinds of sexual content – from porn to erotic literature and sex toys? What has been the success rate of The Clit List?
A. The Clit List is a new, online database of feminist porn aimed at helping women reclaim their bodies after sexual assault. These women wanted to be able to explore their sexuality in a safe way.. but what ended up happening is that they'd try and do that with porn and they'd just come across misogynistic, violent, horrible stuff that replicated what had happened to them, or showed rape as though it were normal. So we created a list of porn that women can safely watch – with no violence, that won't make them feel degraded.
Q. You have also launched Notes of Love in 20 UK Universities. What was the idea behind this concept and how successful you have been?
A. We have enlisted students at 20 universities in a scheme called Notes of Love, where participants write a message of solidarity or support on a Post-it note for a woman who has experienced sexual violence. The notes are then passed on to Rape Crisis and Havens centres.
Q. How have your parents, who are of Indian heritage, reacted to your project?
A. Very well. Their ethos is to do the right thing for others whenever you can, so they've been happy my project is achieving that. I talk about the health care access and clinical side of My Body Back with them, but to be honest I don't really tend to talk about The Clit List with them. Of course, they know it exists, but no one mentions it! South Asian families don't really tend to talk about sex at home, and neither do mine. I'm pretty sure they've seen The Clit List in the news, but they don't really bring it up - which is fine!
(Kavita Bajeli Datt can be contacted at email@example.com)