Finding Her Way To Feel Again — Guilt-Free.
‘Women across Borders’ is a global awareness campaign, shedding light onto the issue of sexual violence around the world. Photographer and executive producer, Stephanie Koehler, traveled to various Balkan states in 2015 to interview female survivors of sexual violence and experts in the field. Part of the campaign is a personal message from each survivor that is captured photographically. Her findings will be published in a series of articles documenting the stories of women in each of the countries she visited.
At age 10, she had the realization that what her father had been doing to her was wrong; he had been sexually abusing her for an extended period of time, and made her believe that what he did was normal. She was eventually the one to stop the abuse, and decided to completely disengage from her father, physically and emotionally. When Erika tried to confide in her best friend, she was met with deaf ears. When she moved out of her childhood home at the age of 15, she went to live with her 23-year-old boyfriend, and her parents did not try to hold her back.
According to a recent article in Die Welt, childhood abuse is much more prevalent in Germany than most anticipate. In a study initiated by the abuse commissioner of the federal government, hundreds and thousands of children are victims of childhood sexual abuse. To date, reliable data is still missing, and in an attempt to gauge the number of affected children, several studies conducted in European countries were compared. The World Health Organization assumes that approximately 1 million children are affected, which is comparable to the rate of people suffering from Type-2 diabetes. Since predators of childhood sexual abuse are most often known to their victims, as in cases of abuse in adulthood, unreported cases make it impossible to gauge the true extent of this epidemic. Another reason reliable data has not been collected satisfactorily is because of the wide spectrum of behaviors included in the definition of childhood sexual abuse. Everything from sexualized language to rape of infants or young children is considered childhood sexual abuse. This said, an estimated 200,000 children are believed to be victims of rape. Other forms of violence often accompany childhood sexual abuse.
In retrospect, Erika sees how her abuse led to her broken trust in her own intuition and a life in which she functioned perfectly and played the role others expected of her. It was not until she was 30 years old that she began to feel herself again. With her pregnancy at age 29, something within just clicked, and she felt an innate urge to change her life. She wanted to face her own story, and started counseling in group therapy. At that time, she was married to a policeman.
Eventually, Erika shared her story, and confided in her younger sister. During their upbringing, her sister was the one often beaten by their father. Erika had a lot of guilt around this as she was spared from the spankings. When Erika told her sister what had happened to her growing up, her sister had such a strong reaction that she fell sick. Together with her sister, she spoke with her mother about the abuse. Her mother’s first reaction was rage and a firm stance to separate from her husband. Unfortunately, she completely changed her mind after only 48 hours. Her mother had talked to her husband, and he, in turn, said that he hadn’t done anything to Erika that she was not willing to participate in. One would think that such a statement would cause further questioning, and at the very least, a realization that something was amiss and that a little girl had been treated unjustly while growing up. Much to Erika’s disappointment, her mother didn’t investigate any further, and with that, Erika broke off her contact to them completely. For 8 years after her son was born, she kept her distance and remained without contact.
Erika’s husband brought his stepchild with him into the marriage before they had their own son. Her husband didn’t approve of her therapy, nor was he supporting her healing path. She later realized this stemmed from his own sense of inferiority and a need to be in control. He was afraid of change. Erika eventually separated from her husband when their son got into school, and after she could no longer bear his intimacy for several years. For the first time, she really felt free. She wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives, and was inspired by a program offered by Landessportbund (an institution governed by the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany) to empower young girls, teaching them self-defense and instilling in them awareness about self-assertion. She went through their program and got certified, and today teaches young girls how to listen to their gut feeling and avoid potentially harmful situations. In these 6-month long classes, they also learn about self-love and inner strength. In this space, girls feel safe to discuss and share their fears and issues in life. It has become their safe haven. This program has gained popularity throughout Germany, and is an excellent way to support teenage girls in forming a strong sense of self.
Erika had shared custody with her ex-husband, and things went well until her new partner came into her life. That’s when things turned sour, and her ex planned to destroy her life. Her son got along well with her new partner, and it was the son who invited him to come live with them. Meanwhile, the son’s father kept telling lies about Erika to their son, saying that she no longer wanted or loved him. These lies eventually made her son emotionally ill. Nine years ago, Erika brought her son to her ex-husband to spend the holidays. He never returned their child. She filed police reports, informed social services, consulted a lawyer, but her ex-husband had already spent a long time beforehand making her look like an unfit mother. One of the most challenging times in her life, she finally had to make the tough decision to let go of her son for his sake. She didn’t want him to be put in a situation where he had to decide between his mother and father.
During this time, she was only allowed to see him every other weekend. Although she made sure to be kept informed about his well-being, not living with him was almost unbearable. She concentrated on her therapy, and knew that one day her son would understand what had happened. At age 16, he started to put the pieces together, and asked Erika for help. Thankfully, Erika was able to convince her ex-husband to enroll their son in therapy. What he didn’t expect was how much that would change his life. In only 6 months, her son made major progress, and grew from a depressive teenager to an outgoing, compassionate young man. His therapist explained to him that it was okay to love his mother, that his father was not his best friend, and that he needed to find his own friends. He knew that his father had been manipulating him all these years. His relationship to Erika changed and healed completely, and today they have a very loving and open communication.
It has been only 4 years since Erika began seeing her parents again. Her mother has a very hard time dealing with Erika’s abuse, although it is fully disclosed to all of the family. To this day, her mother continues to live with her father. After many years of therapy, both individually and in a group, Erika is now able to go to family functions at which her father is present, however, she does keep her distance, which her father does not seem to understand. Both of her parents avoid dealing with the abuse.
Her personal abuse experience and trauma involving her son has left deep scars on Erika’s soul, and it has also made her into the strong woman she is today. She says that she can always sense another survivor. She recognizes a deep sadness that she sees in their eyes and a damaged sense of basic trust. That which is so elementary and important for healthy development is taken away with childhood sexual abuse and cannot be undone; these scars will remain forever. Erika overcame a great deal, and is a testament to having the power to change and rework those deep scars. She decided to take initiative and make it her own responsibility to overcome her fears. Her successful therapies, general zest for life and important role in her community are proof of that. She is an amazing role model to the young girls she inspires and everyone whose life she touches. Her message to all girls and women around the globe is to Listen to your gut feeling. It is always right, and it often takes more courage to say No! I was certainly inspired by her, and am so grateful for women like Erika. They are the ones who will bring about change in our societies, and who are not afraid of the obstacles they face while doing so.
Her quotation for this campaign is: “Without guilt. I feel!”
A special Thank You to my dear friend Kim Birdsong for her support in producing this article and the previous ones in the Balkan series.
Stephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. Her goal of ‘Women across Borders’ is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they endure as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Her work started in the U.S. and took root in form of interviews with women in various Balkan States and Germany. Her articles include photo essays of female survivors, and are platforms to tell their story. Her former work can be read on The Women’s International Perspective. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this work into a global sexual assault awareness campaign.