Trauma’s Impact on Our Communities: Lessons Sent from India

By Amanda B. Cunningham for SWAAY.

Many of us may be feeling overwhelmed or helpless, especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic and as racial and political tensions heighten in the U.S. In times like these, retreating inward to examine ourselves should become more than a priority and instead be a necessity.

When we assess our own trauma, we typically consider the ways it affects us personally, such as depression, fatigue, negative cognition, strained relationships, avoidance or numbness—to name a few. And while it is wildly important to unpack our own trauma, to work through and bring meaning to that of which we’ve suffered, we do need to consider how trauma, even unprocessed, impacts our communities as a whole.

Perhaps the reason I’ve been drawn to my work in anti-human trafficking is not solely because of my desire to help those who’ve experienced systemic oppression, but on the contrary, to be in awe of, and study, the resilience that is possible in the human being.

In a recent virtual (thanks, COVID) gala I hosted for the Yoga Medicine® Seva Foundation and Her Future Coalition, partnering organizations with aligned missions to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation by providing education to survivors and the vulnerable, I had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Ann Bortz, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. According to Dr. Bortz, 90% of people will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in the course of their life, and 8%-20% of those people will suffer debilitating effects as a result.

What does this mean? A lot of us are walking around with trauma—and how it affects us can and will ripple out to affect those around us. Think like this: if one toddler in my son’s classroom uses glitter on an art project, how many toddlers come home with glitter on them?

What we do to help ourselves on the inside will help those who surround us on the outside. The controversial COVID-19 face mask is a great example. Yes, we wear them to protect ourselves, but in the greater scheme, we are wearing masks to protect those around us who may be compromised, elderly, or otherwise high-risk.

Dr. Bortz explains that trauma occurs when we’ve been exposed to a life-threatening stressor, overwhelming our ability to cope and creating a profound sense of helplessness. She goes on to give examples such as an accident, war, natural disasters, or sexual and physical abuse. The effect of trauma can be vast and differ between people. However, commonly, trauma survivors get stuck in a fight-or-flight response. Our energy then, whether conscious of it or not, is constantly working to prepare us to meet threats. This creates an unhealthy environment, affecting our ability to trust, think clearly, be present, or establish caring relationships.

My work in India has thrust me into a fight against an industry that commits heinous crimes against women and children. From children being sold into forms of slavery such as domestic servitude, child marriage, or forced labor, to women and girls kidnapped or coerced into a life of prostitution. The remarkable part, though, is watching a survivor heal. When placed in a caring community that ensures your basic needs are met and offered an education—and full range of services that support education—survivors can heal.

I sat with Sarah Symons, founder of Her Future Coalition and author of This Is No Ordinary Joy, to discuss the lessons she’s absorbed during her 15-years of anti-trafficking work in Asia. The following lessons are thanks to the beautiful, strong, resilient women and children of India—may your past inspire the collective to heal theirs.

1. Practice Forgiveness & Be The Change

Amara grew up in a remote village of Nepal, where trafficking had become so normalized that 90% of girls in the community were either trafficked to brothels in India or forced into child marriages. Amara was one of those girls. Members of her family were involved in trafficking her—either actively or through neglect and tolerance of the practice.

After Amara was rescued by a local NGO, she was given years of support, shelter, and education. Her plan is to go back to her village to open a school and to change the mindset of the villagers so that other girls will not suffer as she did. Amara actively decided not to hold a grudge toward the people of her community, but instead, she committed to helping them, to show them that there’s another way. She says that she practices forgiveness every day because she knows if she did not find a way to forgive, she would be hurting herself, reliving and perpetuating violence in her own heart and mind.

Symons concludes, “Forgiveness is the ultimate act of self-love. Amara has taught me that until you are able to forgive, you can never be completely free.”

2. Focus on What You Can Control & Give Back

“Priyanka grew up in one of our shelter homes, because her mother, a brothel worker, didn’t want her child to be anywhere near the red-light district,” Symons says.

Priyanka was offered a trainee position in Her Future Coalition’s Jewelry Program, a vocational training program that aims to end the shame and powerlessness that many survivors experience, giving them the opportunity to learn a profession to support themselves independently. She started to realize her own potential and began to place focus on what she can control. She poured her energy into creating beautiful pieces of jewelry.

Priyanka’s mother is no longer a brothel worker because of her age. She has various health issues associated with repeated physical and sexual violence over many years. When Priyanka went to visit her mother, she realized something was wrong and had an overwhelming sense that something had to be done. She had been earning and saving money for several years in the jewelry program and decided to move into a small apartment with her mom.

As Symons reflects, “She inspires me because she found a way to give back, despite having limited resources. No matter the situation, there are always ways to give back and take control.”

3. Keep Learning New Things

We can work through and bring meaning to that of which we’ve suffered by finding outlets that stimulate our mind, move our body, and bring forth our creative abilities. According to Psychology Today, art therapy is an artistic method to heal. Art, whether you create it yourself or marvel in other’s pieces, has the ability to help people explore emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stressors, boost self-esteem, and work on social skills that help give us a sense of connection. These same effects can be felt from many modalities such as yoga, meditation, singing, dancing, karate—or anything that allows for creative expression.

Kiya from Nepal speaks five languages. When she was 11, her parents sent her to a monastery school because members of her extended family were involved in human trafficking. Her parents were too poor to provide for her and feared for her safety. Regardless, when Kiya was in her early teens, she was drugged, kidnapped, and trafficked from the school in Nepal to a brothel in Mumbai, owned by her aunt.

“Despite the betrayal of her family, and the terrible suffering she endured in the brothel, Kiya keeps an incredibly positive attitude,” Symons says. She goes on to explain that Kiya finds reprieve in learning new things such as jewelry making, hairstyling, spoken English, volleyball, karate, and academic subjects in school. As Kiya engages in things that stimulate her mind, she builds new neural pathways and creates space for healing.

I’ve personally learned by watching profound lessons in the human’s ability to overcome. As we work through our own traumas and discover ways to heal, collectively, we are creating a new, better future for all.

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