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Opinion: Rising Above Complex Trauma this International Women’s Day

3 min read
International Women's Day

As we dive into this year’s UN Women theme, “Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress,” it’s time to reflect and celebrate women’s achievements every day. It’s not just women who have achieved celebrity status that we need to celebrate but those who fly under the radar, and in their own inimitable way progress their worlds and ours.

Women are often indomitable and don’t only shatter glass ceilings, but dismantle the barriers of the past. In so doing, they inspire and empower others to speak out against all too frequent violations and abuses. So this year more than ever, it’s time to acknowledge that not all women start from the same starting line. Not all women have the tools and support they need to reclaim their power. This International Women’s Day, it’s time to ensure that those who face greater challenges are not left behind.

For survivors of complex trauma, of every gender, the journey toward empowerment can be especially arduous. Trauma does not discriminate – anyone can be affected and everyone needs and deserves compassion, empathy and the opportunity to flourish. 

In Australia, a staggering one-quarter of women who have experienced gendered violence endure multiple forms of interpersonal victimisation throughout their lives. People who have endured one form of trauma often find themselves facing multiple instances of other forms of trauma throughout their lives. This and its effects constitute complex trauma. 

The tentacles of complex trauma inveigle into every aspect of a person’s life, from home, to work, to relationships, to health. For many women, additional financial barriers, welfare dependency, and unstable housing compound the distress caused by cumulative trauma. Yet, the cycle of suffering often goes unrecognised.

Emerging from one toxic environment into another, many individuals grapple with their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, which erode the core of any woman’s sense of themselves. Despite their own hardships, many survivors reclaim their strength, and from their position of strength, drive positive change and empower other women within their communities to find their own strength and build on it.

In 2004, Deborah Thomson fled to Tasmania from Mainland Australia, seeking refuge from an abusive household.

Fast forward to today, she extends support to other survivors still navigating their way out of domestic abuse. Through organisations such as Blue Knot Foundation and Engender Equality, Deborah demonstrates that healing is absolutely possible, one step at a time.

Furthermore, she tirelessly advocates for survivors of family violence, lending her voice to those who may not yet feel empowered to speak out.

Deborah’s story shows how women can and do thrive, even when they don’t start from the same place as others. This is where communities come in – communities of acceptance and hope. 

Despite growing awareness around complex trauma, many women still lack the vital support and networks to keep them buoyant through their healing journey. 

As Deborah builds a community, let’s all build a community of support for those in our midst seeking to overcome the barriers of violence and abuse. 

This International Women’s Day, it’s crucial to shed light on what more can be done by communities to support women who are survivors of complex trauma.

One crucial step is to challenge societal attitudes and norms that perpetuate victim-blaming and stigma surrounding survivors of gender-based violence and complex trauma. We must foster a culture of empathy and support that encourages survivors to come forward and seek help without fear of judgment.

Additionally, we need to create tangible pathways for survivors to access stable employment and economic independence. This includes supporting initiatives that provide job training, skills development, and entrepreneurial opportunities, enabling them to rebuild their lives with dignity and autonomy.

As we reflect on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress,” let us commit to taking meaningful action to empower survivors of complex trauma to realise their true potential and more.

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Dr. Cathy Kezelman AM is a medical practitioner, has the lived and living experience of child sexual and emotional abuse, and is the President and Executive Director of Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma and Deputy Chair of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse.

Under her decades-long stewardship, Blue Knot Foundation has grown from a peer support organisation to a national centre of excellence combining a prominent consumer voice with that of researchers, academics and clinicians. She is a prominent voice in the media and at conferences and co-author of multiple seminal publications around complex trauma and trauma-informed practice. Cathy has spearheaded calls nationally for socio-political trauma-informed change and informed responsiveness to complex trauma.


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