Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Since I was 16, and I first cracked open the book where my eyes were met with a description of the child sex industry in this land, I’ve traveled to many countries to meet with child survivors and hear their stories of exploitation and abuse. They’ve confided in me about the stigma they’ve faced at the hands of their family and communities upon returning home, betrayal by someone they trusted, incessant nightmares, depression and feelings of hopelessness, shame and downright anger.
Indeed, this program has prompted a steep learning curve. I’ve been exposed to a number of theories, concepts, practices ranging from transitional justice mechanisms to DDR, and my mind continues to understand, battle, or at least attempt to make sense of it all- a process that I’m certain will continue long after I return home. Still, no topic has garnered such an emotional response, and led to much introspection then the topic of trauma and self care.
Our lecturer John Pead, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne clearly defined trauma as being an event in which you believe your life to be at risk. Check. The repeated rape coupled with the threat of death endured by these children clearly qualifies them as victims of trauma. I knew that. But I’d never considered the mental wellness of those who work on the front lines. Surely, in times of fighting and afterwards, watching a colleague die; being shot at; being the target of death threats; or witnessing the slow death of a child due to starvation would severely cripple the mental health of a front-line worker. And what about those who work directly with victims of trauma? Perhaps, they too, need to find the answers to the same questions on meaning and purpose that also confront the victims they serve.
While I may not work directly with child survivors of commercial sexual exploitation on a daily basis, I am forced to contemplate the impact of hearing so many traumatic accounts of these children (and sometimes seeing hard evidence of the traumatic event) on my mental health. Has spending much of my teenage and young adult years hearing and witnessing the suffering of children negatively impacted my mental wellbeing? Probably. In my career as an activist, have I sometimes neglected my mental and physical health and pushed myself too far? Definitely.
Still, I’m a peace activist. I’m proud to be one of a group of people who are passionate, courageous, stubborn, and as I’m beginning to understand- sacrificing…sometimes, a little too sacrificing. Yet as we near the finish line and my mind turns to ‘now what?’, I’m reminded to take care. To take time for me. To do the things that I enjoy. To seek comfort in family and friends when I return home. And know that in so doing, I’m not acting selfishly, but selflessly in trying to be the most effective advocate that I can be. As we’ve learned in this course, in order to achieve peace, much work is needed to be done. Positive, sustainable peace- the true form of peace that we are all struggling for, however, must begin with peace of mind.
Cheryl Perera, Canada
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2013 Session