Comfort from abroad for survivors

2013-06-10 00:00

HANDBAGS filled with comfort items meant to help rape survivors have come from across the sea.

Finnish psychologist Johanna Cresswell-Smith, after hearing about the Jess Foord Foundation’s project to collect handbags for rape survivors, joined in to help.

She had lived in Cape Town for two years with her South African husband and had been exposed to the high levels of violence against women. While the rape statistics are not comparable between the two countries, the women in Finland are quite aware of sexual assault and of the lingering scars it can leave.

Durban resident Jess Foord, who was gang-raped and who formed the organisation, said that one of the common reactions to rape is the survivor’s desperate need to wash. The experience leaves them feeling violated and dirty. It can take hours for the police to take the physical evidence necessary. When they are allowed to return home, some women feel like scrubbing their skin off to remove the memory of their attack.

The idea of the handbag project initiated by the Jess Foord Foundation is to give each rape survivor a bag filled with bathing essentials and underwear, and an encouraging note from another woman.

Cresswell-Smith says she was touched by the handbag project and wanted to make a personal contribution. When she mentioned it to other Finnish women, they were also keen to participate. The word spread and when it was time for her to visit South Africa with her family, she had collected more than 60 handbags.

She said: “The women from a group in Helsinki, called Martha, were very excited. They all got involved and it was so touching to see the little things they packed in the bags … It really showed how these women from a different continent were able to connect to their humanity and to reach out to total strangers.”

Their notes — lovingly written to give a bruised and wounded woman some words of encouragement in a dark time — were translated into English.

“When you look at a woman’s handbag, it is really an extension of her personality. She puts her most intimate items in there and it’s a private space. It is a nice thing to pass on a handbag because you know that it was once loved by someone,” Cresswell-Smith said.

•Here’s how you can get involved:

Visit the Jess Foord Foundation website -

• • Donate supplies or handbags

• Donate funds to support this project

• Volunteer for a handbag packing day

• Organize a drive for supplies or a volunteer bag packing day in your area

• Volunteer to become a depot (run the Handbag project for JFF in your area).

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