Resilience in women survivors

by Kathleen Bryant


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On Feb. 8 we celebrate the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman who evolved from an abused child and an enslaved young adult into a strong, impressive woman religious. By popular acclaim she is known as the Patron Saint of Those Who Are Trafficked, and at the request of women religious, Pope Francis declared her feast an International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking.

After being involved with anti-trafficking efforts for 10 years, I received a grant from the Louisville Institute to study the resilience of women who have been trafficked here in the United States. Through my interviews, I discovered a face of the human trafficking reality that is rarely addressed. Survivors themselves made it clear that they would like more focus on their growth, goals and strength — on who they have become in their own resilience.

What I heard astounded me. It challenged all the public discourse about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the media presentations about "victims." As the women told their stories of healing, I heard deep determination, pride in their progress and dreams for their future. Their stories reflected research by Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, head of the Psychology Department at the University of North Carolina and Dr. Richard Tedeschi about a phenomenon they call Post Traumatic Growth, which happens more often than PTSD!

Even though these women are, in some ways, "success" stories, they still experience turbulent waves of recurring traumatic flashbacks that come at any moment, and they know that the healing process takes years.

As Brene Brown says, "Stories are data with a soul!" In the women's stories, I heard strength of soul and a deep connection with life beyond suffering. They are women of hope and have much to teach us about suffering and the human spirit.

Someone out there

Themes of the power of faith and spiritual practice resonated in the stories of resilience. Even when religious belief was never introduced to them, several women told me of sensing "someone out there" to whom they begged for freedom.

One said that while being abused as a young girl, she would look out the window and focus on the moon. "I knew there was something Greater out there than what was happening to me at that moment." Her ability to latch on to the transcendent kept her soul alive.

Kanthi Salgadu, an advocate and activist, was trafficked into Los Angeles for labor. During her struggles, she practiced mindfulness meditation that she learned as a young girl in Sri Lanka as part of her Buddhist classes. Going within she found strength to continue living.

I heard a tenacious inner drive for meaning in the stories. They may not have been churchgoers, but they begged for a God to hear them. A 19-year-old girl, who had never been to church in her life, in her desperation as a victim of trafficking, said her first prayer: "If you are out there, help me!" Afterwards she did a YouTube search on how to pray. She prayed for a way to get out of her situation. She is now going to school and doing well. The name she called God was, "If you are out there."

The stories I heard remind me of the one about Hagar (Genesis 16), a slave woman who was used for both labor and sex according to the custom of the time. In her escape to the desert, God came to her. She gave a name, El Roi, meaning "The God who sees me" to this God. Hagar is the only one in the Old Testament who named God; yet she was the outsider, the "pagan." This is the same God whom the women experienced when they felt invisible.

Dr. Harold Koenig writes, "Belief is the most powerful survival tool in the world." These women discovered and accessed within themselves what Laurence Gonzales  calls the "survival kit" inside us.

Finding her voice

One of the spiritual challenges for women's development is for a woman to find her voice and use it. On an annual march and demonstration, a survivor used her voice for the first time to shout out against trafficking in a safe context with others. She shared what a thrill that was and how she felt empowered.

After a time of healing, some of the women chose to be advocates for others and activists against human trafficking. Many of them emerged from the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking( CAST), the first survivor-centered program in the country. The women I interviewed also told of how empowered they were when they told their stories at Congressional hearings and before state legislators. Before being trafficked, some of these women had never imagined that they could speak before an audience. Advocacy increased their self-confidence and awakened them to their own power and strength.

This phrase from Carol Orsborn in the book Bouncing Back about resilience in the brain resonated with them: "Mastering the art of resilience does much more than restore you to who you once thought you were. Rather, you emerge from the experience transformed into a truer expression of who you were really meant to be."

Their mission

I heard the desire to serve and to give back to the community from women who have been through years of recovery and stability. They started non-profits, opened shelters, a day care center, became licensed social workers, and joined with other survivors to advocate for legislation to protect and provide victim services. Their call to mission was life giving for them. It forged an identity beyond being a person who had endured trauma.

Our bodies

Since the body carries memories of trauma, the women mentioned how bodywork had helped them to become stronger and freer. Even though there is a resilience gene, only one third of people have it.1 Survivors at the early stages of healing found that they could reconnect with their bodies through acupressure and, because it is nonverbal, they were not re-traumatized by telling their story before they were ready. The women found their way to resilience through yoga, tai chi, dance, running, and gym classes.

Music, beauty and the arts

Women expressed a new-found liberation in the arts by telling their stories using drama, journaling, ceramic and oil artworks, art therapy and by creating videos. Hearing about this creative aspect over and over, I learned the arts were a vital part of their healing and resilience. Immersion in nature also was healing, as one survivor shared: "Just looking at the grass, or flowers, and sitting in the sun; the beauty of nature helped me recover."

Relational resilience

A consistent theme from the survivors of human trafficking was that they attribute their resilience to the presence of other survivors. "When I met another survivor, I realized I was not alone, that this happened to others as well."

The National Survivor Network provides both a personal presence and online support to people across the world. Mutual understanding and support helps them to heal.

Relationships fed resilience and for many of them it was their longing to see their families once again that kept them alive while they were trafficked.

Staying in the middle place

Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery notes that survivors feel like they are among the dead because they believe that their "capacity for love has been destroyed." When the victim descends in hell, "one positive memory of a caring, comforting person may be a lifeline during the descent into mourning." The most resilient gave time and space to this time of mourning and grieving. The remembrance of one person who loved them unconditionally made their healing more accessible. 

The role of women religious in this work has empowered these women. Several described the unconditional love and acceptance from women religious playing a part in their rebirth and the foundation of their recovery. One described herself as extremely shy and crying most of the time but the "sisters kept saying, 'You can do it!'" She described them as her angels. Others commented that women religious were like family and truly their sisters as they helped them start foundations, websites and advocacy groups.

The spirituality of Holy Saturday can help us understand the process of healing for survivors. There is a middle place, liminal space, where resilience cannot be rushed. In Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo notes that as soon as Good Friday is over, we begin moving into the Resurrection celebration without waiting in the void, the silence and emptiness of the Holy Saturday. Survivors can teach us that we cannot short circuit the process of healing and that we need to learn to wait.

Josephine Bakhita's point of conversion happened when she saw the crucifix and identified with the bound and tortured Christ. Rambo explains, "There is no place that God does not go. The impact of this point is existentially powerful. We receive, in the drama of hell, assurance that there is no place that God has not been. God has traveled even to the regions of godforsakeness." For one survivor, her conversion happened in the back seat of a car when she was overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus. It was in the very dark place of her oppression that God came to her. Resilience emerges from the darkness.


What can these women teach us about resilience?

From their wisdom, we can learn to rise above our own suffering. We can let their experience speak to us about healing: through waiting, using our voices, accepting support from others, engaging in the arts, enjoying beauty and reclaiming our own embodiment.


1 Ian Craig, Molecular Genetics Section of SCDP Center, Institute of Psychiatry in London, Looked for variations in each person’s serotonin transporter gene – 5-HTT- which comes in two sizes or alleles.  Short version that’s stress sensitive and longer one protects us from adversity

[Sr. Kathleen Bryant is a Religious Sister of Charity from Los Angeles and a core member of the US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. Her email is]

Click here to view Sr. Kathleen Bryant's video: Thrivers and Survivors: Moving Beyond Trauma,
also funded by the Louisville Institute.