Yoga Stretches Terrain for Sex-Trauma Therapy

Sunday, February 28, 2010

In and around the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Deirdre Summerbell teaches an athletic and vigorous form of yoga to about 250 to 300 girls and women; most have survived assault or abuse. Many contracted HIV during the genocide.

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Yoga easy pose(WOMENSENEWS)--Deirdre Summerbell's first response was no.

That was in 2007, when a nongovernmental group focused on women's health asked her to teach yoga classes in Rwanda to women who were HIV-positive and survivors of rape and other traumas from the 1994 genocide.

"Like most people, I thought the last thing that was needed was yoga," Summerbell said in a recent interview at a cafe in New York's East Village.

But after about a week she recontacted Women's Equity in Access to Care and Treatment, WE-ACTx, which has its administrative headquarters in San Francisco and a local program office in Rwanda. Soon after, she traveled to the East African nation for a three-month experiment.

"I knew that we were onto something by the second or third class," Summerbell said, "because one of the women came up to me afterwards and said that she had slept through the night for the first time in 14 years after the preceding class. And then more and more women began reporting the same results."

The experiment continued and after about a month Summerbell had some unexpected good luck.

A friend forwarded an e-mail from Summerbell to superstar Madonna, who donated $250,000 to the project. With that, an experiment turned into a program within WE-ACTx. Last spring the program separated from WE-ACTx and became its own organization, Project Air. It's the first yoga initiative to gain formal endorsement by the United Nations.

Project Air joins other efforts to use yoga as a trauma therapy, such as those aimed at U.S. war veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

The number of women who could be candidates for sex-trauma therapy is vast in a world where the United Nations Development Fund for Women estimates at least 1-in-3 women in her lifetime has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused.

Gender Violence's Ripple Effect

That statistic is particularly high in Rwanda, where between 250,000 and 500,000 girls and women were raped during the genocide, according to a report by the Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, now the U.N. Human Rights Council, in Rwanda.

Because of the strong role women play as breadwinners for their families and primary caretakers of children, the elderly and those living with HIV and AIDs, gender-based violence can send a ripple effect through an entire community, said Maria Jose-Alcala, an advisor for the Ending Violence Against Women Section at New York-based UNIFEM, in an email interview.

"Violence against women has long-lasting and severe health consequences for women, including depression, various physical ills, sexual and reproductive health problems, as well as diminished productivity and lost wages for each incident of physical abuse with obvious economic costs to the entire community," Jose-Alcala said.

Survivors report that the mental and emotional effects of abuse linger after physical scars fade.

In and around the Rwandan capital Kigali, Summerbell teaches an athletic and vigorous form of yoga to about 250 to 300 girls and women, most of them survivors of some form of assault or abuse. Many contracted HIV as a result of being raped during the genocide.

Although the women are quite physically strong--they are responsible for carrying water and looking after children--their traumas have created a disconnect with their emotions as well as their bodies.

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