Stylist’s Woman of the Week is Pavan Amara whose My Body Back clinics provide sexual health checkups for victims of assault in London and Glasgow.
Three years ago, Pavan Amara decided to undertake an in-depth piece of research.
Amara was raped when she was a teenager, and decades later she found that she was still coping with the aftershock of the attack. She couldn’t look in a mirror, felt anxious in crowds and was terrified of being touched. This included the touch of a physician, to the point where she stopped going to the doctor.
Amara, herself a trained nurse, wanted to know whether this was an emotional trauma she was suffering on her own or if this was something she shared with a network of survivors of assault. After speaking to 30 different women from around the country, she realised that not only was she not alone, she had unearthed a silent epidemic of survivors who were avoiding basic and necessary health services after their assault. Of the women she surveyed, more than half said that they had not had a smear test since their assault because they found the experience triggering. A quarter of the women surveyed also avoided STI tests since their assault for the same reason.
“It is a hidden issue because when women experience sexual assault, they already don’t want to talk about it,” Amara notes. “Sexual assault silences women.”
As a result, Amara established the My Body Back clinic in London in 2015 to serve as a safe environment for victims of assault to receive vital sexual health services, including maternal care, STI testing, smear tests and contraceptive care. A second clinic opened in Glasgow in February 2018. “When you have a personal experience of something, you become aware of all the things that are missing,” Amara explains. “And all the things that should exist.”
The differences between My Body Back and any other sexual health clinic are subtle, but significant. Before women arrive for an appointment they fill out information that discloses their assault and lists their trigger points, which are many and varied and include areas and kinds of touch, specific words, and clinical smells, which can bring back the experience of post-assault forensic examinations.
One woman, Amara recalls, was told by her rapist to ‘relax and it will be over quicker.’ When a clinician performing a vaginal examination repeated those same words to her in a clinical context she tensed up immediately and was completely traumatised. “Sexual violence has so many different consequences,” Amara explains. “There’s the emotional impact but there’s a physical memory of sexual assault that stays with you, too.”
“The one thread that links [many women’s stories] together is that a lot of women say that feeling strangers in control of their body while they were completely out of control was exactly what had happened during their assault,” Amara adds. What My Body Back does is allow victims to regain that control over their bodies through access to vital health services.
Amara is fuelled by the work, even though she faces vicious online abuse from people she knows and also from strangers, mostly from within the Asian community. “I come from a culture where you don’t talk about these things and you don’t bring shame on to the community,” Amara explains. She has been threatened with acid attacks every week, something that causes Amara immense levels of anxiety, causing her to stop checking her email inbox for fear of unearthing an abusive message, to refuse interview requests and turn down the opportunity to speak about the project in public.
To cope, she doubles down on the work itself and looks to the support – mostly of women – within the feminist community. “That has been amazing,” she says. “It’s a reminder that there are people who think what I’m doing is a good thing, and there are people who come and use the service and I remember how important it is.” She also takes reading breaks from My Body Back work as an act of self-care. Mostly, though, it’s about “remembering all the good things that have come from My Body Back and changing the association with the work from anxiety to one where you feel excited to continue the work.”
Something that helps is all the messages Amara receives from fellow assault survivors from around the world begging her to set up a My Body Back clinic in their country. Though some have travelled to London and Glasgow for health services from afar afield as Barcelona, Amara has also received messages from women in South Africa, India and Pakistan, Greece and Australia wanting a My Body Back clinic to open in their city.
One day, Amara says, she hopes that a global network of clinics will be a reality. For now, she’s focussing on ensuring that there’s a My Body Back clinic in every region in the UK and is looking to establish in locations in the north west, the north east, the south coast and the Midlands, with London and Glasgow as the two centres.
What started as her personal project to heal, Amara says, has become something much bigger than even she anticipated.
“I think it’s important for personal experience to start something, but I don’t think it should continue to lead a service,” Amara explains. “Though I started it, so many women have used the services with totally different experiences to me, different ages and different demographics. We all need different things. It started with a personal experience, but now it’s a community of women.”
The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of women who are making a difference to society and to celebrate their success. See more Visible Women stories here.
Images: Supplied, Unsplash