Disclosures of Abuse in
by Jenny Horsman
IN THIS section I want to focus particularly on childhood experiences of sexual abuse and briefly on adult experiences in abusive relationships. Figures for the number of women who were sexually abused as children vary from estimates of one in five to much higher. It seems fair to assume that women in literacy programs will at the very least fit this average. The percentage of women in literacy programs who experienced abuse as children could even be greater, as some reactions to abuse which have been widely documented are an inability to pay attention, acting out, or being barely "present." Such reactions might well have got in the way of a girl's attempts to learn to read.
The experiences of abuse, which may have hindered learning to read in childhood, may still get in the way in adulthood if women do not address the impact on their life. The experience of women who have been or are still being abused as adults may also interfere with their learning. Very often they have been told they are stupid and unable to learn; abusers may maintain control over their victims in part by convincing them that they are too stupid to survive on their own, that they couldn't ever learn to do a job or go back to school. These effects may last long after the woman has left an abusive relationship; if the woman is still being battered, she may get fresh messages every day that tell her she can't succeed at learning. As well, shame and embarrassment may force her to miss classes when she has a black eye or visible bruises.
Women who have survived rape may also have memories that are more or less fresh. Some women may never have told anyone; others may have laid charges and gone through the police and court systems. They may have been made to feel ashamed of themselves, or to think that they invited rape. Much of the talk, and some of the learning materials, at their literacy program may remind them of their experience.
Programs must respond structurally to the needs of women for a violence-free place to learn. This might include, as a bare minimum, a policy against sexual harassment, a commitment to following that policy, tutors who have been educated in the issues, and a sound-proof room where women can speak confidentially. Tutors and staff need opportunities for training and reflection about the ways experiences of violence impact on literacy work.
Literacy workers are not usually trained as therapists or counselors, and the advice in this chapter is not that you should do therapy. Rather it is that you recognize that experiences of violence may have an impact on literacy learning and that the trust and space to take risks, which are necessary for adults to learn to read, can lead to the telling of experiences of abuse. Entering a literacy program necessarily opens up memories of childhood and school days. It is often a first step towards control and healing. As a literacy worker you will be dealing with these memories whether you wish to or not. If stories of violence are told you need to be prepared so that you can provide as much support as possible and avoid re-victimizing the woman.
There is a range of things you can do to support a woman who has been abused, depending on her needs and wishes and your comfort level. In this chapter we will look at many of these in detail.
In this section I have drawn on my experience working with a women's group and with one woman who began to tell me about her memories. I will call her Mary. Anecdotes of our experience are included in italics. Mary and I had many discussions as I worked on this section. I read much of it to her, especially all the pieces which describe our work together. She added many ideas and encouraged me to rethink many of my own. The advice here reflects our experience of working together. Mary is a white woman who grew up in Toronto. I do not know how far our experience of working together will be relevant for women of other ethnicities or in other locations. You may need to draw from this material and adapt it for your situation.
There is a list of useful books and articles at the end of this section (Resources, page 25).