Survivor to thriver: creating a brighter future for victims of sexual abuse

Marelize Santana -- Wed, 03/29/2017 - 14:33

Survivor to thriver:  creating a brighter future for victims of sexual abuse

The heart-wrenching reality of childhood sexual abuse is a global scourge which two researchers from North-West University (NWU) are tackling by assisting survivors to deal with their trauma and thrive.  

The worldwide prevalence as measured in 22 countries indicates that 18% to 20% of girls and 8% to 9% of boys have to cope with this trauma at some time during their lives.  

The interdisciplinary research of Prof Ansie Fouché and Dr Hayley Walker-Williams looks at how victims of such heinous acts survive and whether it is possible for these women to thrive.  

Ansie is an associate professor and registered social worker on the Vaal Triangle Campus of the NWU.  She is a researcher and leader of the “Pathways to Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth” subprogramme within the Optentia Research Programme.

Hayley is subject head of the Psychology Department at the Faculty of Humanities on the Vaal Triangle Campus. She is a practising clinical psychologist and researcher in the same subprogramme within Optentia.

Together these two experts are driving a research project entitled “Survivor to Thriver” (S2T), aimed at facilitating post-traumatic growth in South African women who experienced sexual abuse in childhood.

Group experience promotes healing
This newly developed strengths-based group intervention programme supports a balanced approach and draws on a collaborative mix of traditional (what’s wrong) and strengths-based (what’s strong) theories. It aims to re-author trauma stories in a safe, healing group context, where women witness each other’s healing and where there is reflection on individual strengths and capacities borne from the struggle to cope with childhood trauma.

The group context becomes the vehicle for healing and the “expert facilitator” the navigator towards healing. The facilitator collaborates and sees the woman as being the expert of her own life.

The findings of Hayley’s PhD study, together with literature and the experience of the two experts and their disciplines, were applied to the development of the S2T programme, more formally known as “Survivor to Thriver Strength Based Intervention for Female Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse”. The two researchers piloted it with two groups of women, undertaking qualitative and quantitative pre- and post-evaluations. The post-evaluations showed that the women reported post-traumatic growth outcomes after participating in the programme.

Their longitudinal study has received funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and is now at the start of its third and final year.

Research has international importance
This research has taken Ansie and Hayleyacross the globe, and they are preparing to meet with the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) of New Zealand. The ACC is the national organisation that aims to provide comprehensive, no-fault personal injury cover for all New Zealand residents and visitors to the country. While presenting the programme at an international conference, Hayley met with a delegate from the University of Otago who saw the value that the programme could hold for victims of sexual abuse or assault whom it assists.  Part of their visit will be to facilitate the implementation of the programme for the ACC.

The programme has also attracted attention in the United States. An article on the programme was published on a blog of the Oxford Institute of Population Aging ( where it was seen by internationally acclaimed author, doula and child birth expert Penny Simkin.  Simkin, who has specialised in childbirth education and labour support since 1968, estimates that she has prepared over 13 000 women, couples and siblings for childbirth.  She sees the S2T programme as a solution for mothers-to-be who are still battling the scars left by childhood sexual abuse.  

Getting ready for the start of their third year of intervention, Hayley and Ansie are very excited about what the future holds.  “There are a lot of factors that may influence the success of the programme,” says Ansie.  “But we believe that our study would prove that the programme truly works.  We cannot change the past, but we believe that the programme can bring about a better future for these women.”

Prof Ansie Fouché (left) and Dr Hayley Walker-Williams’ interdisciplinary research focuses on how victims of childhood sexual abuse can survive and thrive.