Pavan Amara was raped when she was a teenager. As is the case for many survivors of sexual violence, the attack deeply affected the way she felt about herself physically. Unsure of what to do or how to feel better about her body, she looked for support online.
Amara typed "rape, body image, can't go to doctor" into Google. Very few useful search results came up.
"I found it very difficult to go to the doctor myself," Amara, a now 27-year-old student nurse from north London, told BuzzFeed News. "I wanted to have cervical screening and the coil fitted but it reminded me too much of forensic testing that I'd had to have after being raped."
Amara interviewed other women who had experienced sexual violence about whether they also had difficulty reclaiming their bodies. It turned out they did, and that they all found the healthcare they needed difficult to access. Many felt they were "paying the consequences of what happened", and some had avoided having preventative screenings for cervical cancer or having internal contraceptives fitted because the process triggered memories of being assaulted and raped.
After speaking to clinicians who agreed that many women would really benefit from care dedicated to this issue, Amara decided to take action.
In August 2014, Amara founded My Body Back, a project that aims to help women with experience of sexual violence to love and care for their bodies again. She and her team of nine started working closely with clinicians at Barts Health NHS Trust running specialist services for women.
This week, they opened the first My Body Back Clinic in London.
The new clinic offers cervical screening, STI testing, and contraceptive care to women with experience of sexual violence in an understanding and supportive atmosphere so they feel cared for and safe. Around 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, and Amara hopes the clinic will benefit the health and lives of women who have experienced the same thing she did.
"I believe that it is never your fault if you experience sexual violence," Amara told BuzzFeed News, "so if someone does experience it they should have access to the care they need." She wants survivors of rape and sexual assault to have more autonomy and control over their body and their choices around it. "They shouldn't have to pay for what happened to them," she said.
The My Body Back project and clinic are also helping women reclaim their sex lives. Following sexually violent attacks, many people find it difficult to be touched, and the project is helping women come to terms with their sexuality again.
"The response to My Body Back has been amazing," Amara said. "The main thing is, women are benefiting, and as long as we know that we know we're doing the right thing."
Amara said she will continue to expand and improve her team's work in a number of ways, and that she will be "guided by what the women we work with tell me they need". At the moment, she can see her team doing more to improve experiences around internal contraceptive care such as the coil, as it's something she hears come up often. "Basically, I'm led completely by what women say and what they want," she said.
A common misunderstanding about survivors of rape and sexual assault is that they all cope with it in the same way, she said.
"Everybody is different, so please don't judge anyone's individual way of coping with being attacked," she said. "You may not understand their way of coping, but they do, and that's what's important.
"But I would also love people to know it's possible to have a very difficult experience and go on to live a very happy life."
Rossalyn Warren is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Rossalyn Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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