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.
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.
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.