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Victims vs. Survivors: Dis-Empowering Messages Can Hurt

By on Thursday, February 14, 2013

The term “victim” has become a pet peeve for me. After working for so many years with nonprofits supporting survivors of trauma, I no longer like to see the word “victim” used solely to describe the amazing and courageous people I meet and support who are figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other again and rebuild their lives after experiencing trauma or violence.

It should be no surprise that a tweet this week by @Good encouraging do-gooders to send valentines to “a victim of war” caught my eye.
While the project itself is great (kudos to Women for Women International for launching a campaign that links to their mission and raises funds) – the headline on good.com uses the term “victim.” While surely the Good post was a well-intentioned effort to support this worthwhile charity, is “victim” the best choice available for language in this case? I think not.
To call survivors of war trauma victims – and victims only – is dis-empowering and stigmatizing. The words we used to communicate can make a huge impact. Victims are passive and not able to take steps to help themselves. Victims are devoid of strength, agency and intelligence. Surviving may require tremendous strength and courage – just getting to tomorrow may be a gargantuan feat for someone who has suffered trauma or violence. Survivors try to step forward in their lives beyond a traumatic experience, refusing to allow that experience to define them.
Victim terminology is used heavily in the law enforcement and legal communities and as a result – that language is often found in the nonprofit community assisting trauma survivors. Some organizations that work with survivors of trauma use survivor and victim as paired language (see the Sensitive Language Guide from the Women’s Funding Network). Other nonprofits heavily emphasize survivorship over victimhood in their language and messaging – and many note this language can influence receovery. Organizations working in domestic violence response and prevention are sensitive to survivor/victim language – see one activist’s comments here on the victim vs. survivor language issue.
Women for Women International, emphasizes survivorship in banner headlines on its website and says that victims transition to being survivors and informed citizens through its programs. A splash page promoting the campaign on Valentine’s Day on their website encourages participants to help the women the organization serves. Victimhood is nowhere near the messaging being used for this campaign for a reason. Women for Women International has made an intentional choice to embrace a language of empowerment.
I fired off a tweet to @Good last Tuesday in response:
I didn’t get a response back. If activists truly want to make a difference in this world for those who have suffered tragedy, they need to take a serious look at the language they opt to use. We cannot allow our desire for marketing a good cause, to dis-empower the people we are trying to help.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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