‘You just have to be kind – there’s nothing bigger than that’. – INTERVIEW: Pavan Amara, Founder of the My Body Back Project
Sitting in a pretty teashop in Camden on a rainy Sunday morning sounds like a lot of people’s idea of a cosy way to spend part of your weekend. And on this particular occasion, it was made even more delightful with the company of Pavan Amara (or Pav for short), founder of the My Body Back Project.
My Body Back was started in August 2014 and works with women who have been raped or sexually assaulted to love and care for their bodies again. MBB does this by running specialist services, including a cervical screening clinic designed especially for women who have experienced sexual violence, as well as an STI self-testing clinic for women who have been raped. Both of these clinics work very sensitively with women, so they feel safe and relaxed.
The first word that springs to mind when I meet Pav is ‘vivacious’. Pav has an infectious aura about her, one that automatically makes you feel as if it’s sunny outside, even when the rain hasn’t stopped pouring. Instantly likable, Pav and I got chatting about nails and diets – until we realised that what we were talking about wasn’t particularly feminist and that perhaps we should get down to the business side of things!
Pav is warm, friendly and flexible – during the interview, she adopts a graceful pose and puts much thought into her answers. I was so eager to sit back, listen and learn. And what I learnt was that Pav is an unstoppable force of nature.
How did your personal experiences inspire you to set up the charity?
I needed those services myself. I had really brilliant counselling for emotional stuff, but once you get to that stage where it’s not affecting you emotionally every single day, I think it’s a myth that you’re okay. Even if you’re not in that crisis phase, there are still loads of things that it’s still affecting. For me, it was my body image and my own sexual pleasure. I was terrible about going to the doctor… I think that was because I had to have hospital treatment afterwards so I associated doctors with that trauma.
I knew I couldn’t be the only one feeling that way, so that’s what led me to speak to other women. I spoke to thirty other women about how they felt with all of these things. All of them said that they had issues with body image and sex, and over half said that they weren’t attending cervical screenings; even though they really wanted to go, they weren’t attending because they couldn’t stand having someone invading them again. I asked them if they wanted a service that helps them with this, and they were kind of crying out for it!
‘Rape doesn’t just have emotional consequences, it also has physical consequences, but that’s been ignored for some reason in terms of support available’.
You only get twelve weeks of counselling in some places after something so horrific has happened to you. The Rape Crisis movement started in the ‘70s and ‘80s so the centres are actually very new anyway. People have only recently started acknowledging that there are even emotional consequences to rape – they weren’t going to acknowledge, maybe, that there are physical consequences too.
What are the Notes of Love?
We started the Notes of Love at the Women of the World Festival. We got members of the public to write on heart-shaped, coloured pieces of paper, a short message of support to a woman who’s been sexually assaulted and we used all the notes to form a display inside Rape Crisis centres and inside the Havens as well.
The idea was that as women walked in, they would see how much support they had from random people, because that means so much to them at a time like that. As they leave the centre, they take a note from the display and keep it with them as a source of support.
‘You think you’re all alone, you think it’s your fault, and all you really want is for someone to say ‘It’s okay, I’m here for you’, and there’s often no one there to do that. If there is, you don’t believe them. So it’s such a comfort to have so many people telling you such things, but you don’t have to use your emotional energy to respond to them’.
We got over 1,000 notes at WOW. We didn’t expect people to take to it as much as they did. At times the stall was so busy that people couldn’t actually get to the table!
Because it went so well at WOW, we’re getting universities on board. We want them to write a couple of hundred notes at each university and then those notes will form displays inside those universities’ local Rape Crisis centres. Already, Oxford and Cambridge have signed up straight away to it!
I think it’s that act of kindness that’s really important, because sometimes I think that when it comes to supporting women who’ve experienced sexual assault, people feel like they have to do something big. Actually, it’s just the tiny acts of kindness. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to be kind – there’s nothing bigger than that.
If you were to write your own, ultimate Note of Love to survivors of sexual violence, what would it say?
It would say… ‘I know you think that you’re never going to get through this, and I know that maybe you can’t see the future right now, but it’s there, and it does get better and there’s life afterwards and you can enjoy it. It hasn’t taken anything away from you – it was something you didn’t want to happen, but now you’re going to see what you’re really made of and capable of because you will get through this.’ I’d want somebody to know that.
What’s the most important aspect of your work?
It’s making sure that women know that everything they’re going through is normal. It’s about normalising it in a way – we only talk about women’s bodies in society in a way that serves men, and that really irritates me because things like Page 3 aren’t there for women, they’re there to serve men. I don’t understand that – our bodies and sexualities should be our own. After sexual assault, that’s magnified even more.
‘The whole project is about saying, ‘No, actually your body is for you and it’s about YOU’’.
The message we get nowadays is that we should look after ourselves, learn what we like in bed, for men, but there’s no focus on women and what they enjoy for themselves.
What has been the hardest part of running My Body Back so far?
When I started it, I thought to myself, ‘a lot of women say that they want this’. I spoke to North London Rape Crisis and they said that if I wanted to start it they’d give me lots of support. But I suppose the hardest part has been the fact that it’s been so overwhelming in terms of how many people need it. I didn’t realise how much need there was, so I had to very quickly get lots of people to help me run it!
Can you tell us about a particular survivor you have met who has inspired you the most?
Everybody, really! I’m inspired by everyone who has come through it in their own way. I don’t always find someone inspiring because they’ve done something big; I usually find them inspiring if they’ve done something small.
For example, a friend of mine was raped by her boyfriend and she had a very difficult time, but I think the fact that she was able to trust me and tell me about it, I really respected her for that.
I know it’s really hard, and in my situation, because it was on the more extreme scale, the choice to tell someone was taken out of my hands with the court system and police, etc. But for her, she actually had the choice of telling someone or not and she still chose to come forward and trust me.
Apart from running My Body Back, what are you up to at the moment?
I’m a student nurse!
I left school without very many qualifications, but since doing all of this work, it’s opened me up to what I really want to do with my life. I fell into a lot of things – bartending, journalism… but doing [MBB] made me realise that I really wanted to support other women who had experienced similar things.
At the moment I’m retaking my science and maths GCSEs and A Levels. I do nightshifts at newspapers but I also work as a carer. Next year I’m going to King’s College London.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m not very goal-driven, I just tend to do what I think is important. Just to be happy, really! And to do my best for those women who have come forward to MBB, keep being a good friend, and enjoy my life! That’s a goal in its own way, I think people really underestimate that. After what happened, I realised that life is really short and you must be positive about it.
What brings you a lil’ joy?
What I like doing is watching Coronation Street and Eastenders with a cup of tea – I really like that! Soaps, tea, cakes and hanging out with my friends all bring me a lil joy! I also love cider!