A group of women sits on the grass in the sunshine, engaged in a session of drama therapy designed to ease the pain of sexual assault. Down a path lined with trees, a girl and her mother study the significance of becoming a bat mitzva. In a building nearby, a young woman enters the spa, taking time for herself to process the loss of her recent miscarriage. A group of doctors passes by, animatedly discussing the effects of menopause on the brain.
This is the vision of Marva Zohar, activist, midwife, poet and founder of Land Where Women Heal, a proposed rehabilitation village for women suffering from trauma due to sexual violence.
Zohar, who recently returned from Africa, where she volunteers her skills as a midwife, is currently on the first leg of a five-month fund-raising tour traveling throughout Israel, North America and Europe.
She’s visiting homes, synagogues, community centers and other locations to present her vision for Land Where Women Heal, which, in addition to the rehabilitation village, will include income-generating initiatives such as a school to educate medical professionals about the specific needs of female patients, a natural birthing center, a mikve (ritual bath), spa and retreat space for women looking to mourn losses or celebrate milestones.
Zohar, who holds an MA from Bar Ilan University’s Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, wrote a performance piece titled Life After Death
, which she presents at some of the fund-raising events. It’s an examination through documentary poetry and prose of her own experiences as a survivor of sexual violence
While Zohar acknowledges that it is politically correct to refer to herself as a “survivor,” she doesn’t use that term. “I don’t take survival for granted because I’ve lost so many people,” she says. “It’s hard to fit in a world that doesn’t have a space for your pain.”
The people she’s referring to include Efrat, Anat, Avigayil, Rivki and May, five women she met during her own healing journey, who all committed suicide due to what they felt is the insufficient rehabilitative framework in Israel, ill-equipped to handle the unique needs of female victims (the term Zohar prefers) of sexual violence.
Zohar was inspired to create Land Where Women Heal at May’s funeral, when she and a group of friends around her grave to read a letter she left behind. The letter detailed May’s dream of a truly safe healing haven – free of insensitive doctors asking intimate questions and performing invasive tests, victim- blaming and silencing from other patients and staff, restraint and isolation interventions – all particularly problematic for patients being treated for trauma due to sexual violence.
In 2012, the Neve Yaakov psychiatric hospital in Petah Tikva was closed after several staff members were arrested due to reports of patient abuse and neglect. In 2013, the ministry announced its plan to close two private psychiatric hospitals, Ilanit and Neve Shalva, for similar violations. It was only in 2017 that the Health Ministry recommended psychiatric hospitals in Israel change their policies on binding and isolation, suggesting use of these methods as a “last resort” for the most difficult or violent patients.
“What pushed my friends to commit suicide wasn’t the trauma,” Zohar says. “It was the indifference, the systematic abuse they met when they were trying to find help and choose life. A woman needs a safe place where people believe in her and trust her and listen to her and her body.”
Land Where Women Heal is an alternative to hospitalization, aiming to host approximately 16 women aged 18 and older at any given time during its pilot year. These women will live in the village for six to 12 months at no cost, receiving full-time care – including nights and weekends, when help is often difficult to come by in the mainstream system. On-site practitioners trained to treat a range of relevant conditions, including substance abuse, eating disorders, disassociation, and suicidal thoughts, will live on campus in staff housing, while on-call specialists will offer holistic therapies such as art, yoga, and meditation.
Zohar is currently in talks to secure a land donation from a kibbutz in the north, hoping to be able to draw from the strength that many find in nature, as opposed to the clinical environment of a hospital, as an important component of the healing process.
There are other organizations that support women and men suffering from trauma in the wake of sexual violence. Although within the hospital framework, The Bat Ami Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse at the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem has a separate, discreet emergency room entrance for sexual assault victims, and has prepared its examination rooms for both medical and forensic checks, eliminating the need for separate trips to the police station.
Outside of the hospital, The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel offers a 24/7 emergency hotline, assistance in filing police reports, and advice about the legal process. Beit Ruth treats abused and at-risk girls aged 13 to 18 who have been removed from their homes by court order. And Beit Ella offers therapeutic care to sexually abused women who are 18 and older.
While Zohar was among those who campaigned for Beit Ella to open after the widely publicized suicide of Hebrew University student and sexual violence victim Efrat Gil in 2005, she says these efforts are not enough, citing strict admission policies, limited care duration,long waiting lists, and the lack of follow up, which leaves many unsupported.
With this in mind, Land Where Women Heal is building a network of partner organizations that can offer less intensive support to graduates of the program. These women will also serve as mentors to new participants and will be encouraged to advocate in their communities.
Zohar’s goal is to raise $2 million to finance the construction and operation of Land Where Women Heal during its first year and to transition to a self-sustaining model after that.
“It’s not that much, in comparison to the cost of saving lives, right?” she writes in a Hebrew language op-ed published on Ynet.
At the time of this article’s publication, nearly NIS 95,000 had been raised on the organization’s Giveback website, and more via other channels.
“There is deep and wide social change that needs to happen
,” says Zohar, referencing the ever-growing #MeToo movement bringing attention to the prevalence of sexual violence.
“We’re recognizing that we all carry these stories, but what’s the next step? In the aftermath, we need a place to heal. Are we ready to take responsibility?”
A poem by Marva Zohar
The doctor wants to know What trauma/
his eyes move through your body slowly/
the way curious drivers pass by wreckage
on the opposite lane/ you say rape/
he wants to know/ What were you wearing?
you say what you always say/ nothing/
they took off all your clothes/ he points at
the bed/ the blood pressure cuff grabs
your arm/ closing in on your bone/ the
thermometer is pushed too deep into your
throat/ What were you wearing?
a pink bathing suit with red strawberries
What were you wearing?
a field of red strawberries/ four plows
about to penetrate the virgin soil/ What
were you wearing?/ my human costume/
stripped/ What were you wearing?
the human skin God had sown for me
What were you wearing?
i was a pile of empty clothes on the floor
an eye watching from the peeling
paint in the ceiling
he tells you to lift your shirt/ touches
the cold metal of the stethoscope to your skin/
he does not listen to the beatings of your
heart/ his hand reaches for your breast/ he
is not wearing a glove/ he is checking
your resistance reflex/ you say nothing/
your expression does not change/ the skies
of your eyes are covered in smog