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Women of Spirit: An Open Letter to Lifeline Canberra

Women of Spirit Finalists. Image Credit: Lifeline Canberra

On Wednesday the 4th of September, Camille and I attended the Lifeline Women of Spirit Awards luncheon, an event designed to celebrate women who have overcome trauma and adversity, and used their experiences to help others.

Activists in the space of sexual violence rarely get recognition for their work, as talking about this issue in general can often be seen as taboo and “uncomfortable”. When we were nominated as finalists, I was incredibly excited, as it felt like a step in the right direction for myself and fellow activists, who are often survivors of sexual violence themselves. When we arrived at the hall, I was still quite nervous and jittery, as we would be receiving our awards in front of over 300 people, including Julie Bishop, many of whom were older than us, and felt more deserving of the recognition. I picked up the programme of the event from our table, and was both shocked and delighted to see that our 400-word nomination stories were included, meaning that everyone attending the event would be able to know exactly why we were there, and what specific trauma we had overcome. It felt good to hear that sexual violence and survivors were being acknowledged and not sugarcoated.

However, this feeling would only last about halfway through the ceremony. After nervously walking across stage a little before I was supposed to, and awkwardly taking a photo that ended up making me look cross-eyed, I was finally able to listen to the summarised bio that was being stated by the MC. My heart sank as she stumbled through a clearly unrehearsed statement about the “hurdles” I had overcome, and the “movement” that I joined. Not a word about the sexual violence I had dealt with in the last five years of my life. Nothing about sharing my story to the world and my family.

I didn’t think I could be more disappointed until I heard the two-sentence summary of Camille’s life’s work….

When Mina and I walked into that room, with the support of my partner, we were feeling almost giddy about it. Were we about to be heard? Listened to? Taken seriously? Validated? Unfortunately not. Those few sentences, that detailed nothing but a vague notion of ‘experience with mental health and things in life’ was absolutely devastating to hear. Everything I have endured, condensed to that. All of the years of trauma, assault, rape, and violation, succumbed to *just a few hurdles in life*.

The words sexual violence were not. mentioned. once.

I still don’t know how to feel about it, and all I can think is, will society EVER change? When are we going to acknowledge sexual violence for what it is? You know, sexual violence...

Sexual violence and trauma is difficult to speak about, but having those difficult conversations is what Lifeline is all about. Sexual violence is a key contributor to mental ill-health for many people, including myself in the past. It’s not something we should gloss over, and survivors should not continually have their experiences excluded from the conversation. We should be doing everything we can to include them.

Despite our feelings toward this particular event, I do believe Lifeline does some amazing work and it is no fault of theirs that this happened. All finalists were absolutely inspiring women who have overcome adversity in their lives, and I am grateful to have been able to just be in the same room as them and celebrate their achievements. The winners were so deserving and I enjoyed being able to see and hear from some wonderful women kicking goals!

But this letter isn’t about that, it’s about the acknowledgement that Mina and I have endured such pain that will affect us for the rest of our lives. Our stories were not heard, and we are tired of having to explain to people that we, quite frankly, are survivors of rape. We will continue to advocate, to fight, to speak, to listen, to overcome adversity, because we are committed to being a part of the change this community needs. We just want the rest of the community to help us do this.

What do you think, Lifeline?

- Mina Khoshnevisan and Camille Schloeffel

#RevealingTruths #BreakingStigmas #WeWillSpeak #WeWillListen #WomenOfSpirit #LifelineCanberra

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