Fueled by her own trauma, a doctoral student fights to break the cycle of sexual violence | UMM News

Contact: Erin Flynn

Tabitha Mpamira established the EDJA Foundation, now known as the Mutera Healing Foundation, to break the cycle of sexual and gender-based violence in sub-Saharan Africa.

KALAMAZOO, Michigan — Trauma manifests itself in several ways. Tabitha mpamira became fascinated by its intricacies while working in psychology labs as an undergraduate student at Western Michigan University. But it wasn’t until many years later, as she helped women and girls living in poverty and battling sexual violence, that she overcame the trauma of her childhood.

She was volunteering for a non-profit organization in a Ugandan village ravaged by HIV / AIDS in 2015 when she had a life-changing conversation.

“I asked what I could do from a mental health point of view. And this teacher, very nonchalant, said, ‘There is a 9 year old girl who was raped yesterday; maybe you can. start there. She’s in class. “She said it like it was okay. I was shocked,” says Mpamira.


She learned that the little girl’s grandmother could not afford to take her to the hospital. And while most of the villagers knew who the perpetrator was – he admitted to his actions and offered the family a goat as an excuse – Mpamira said the police would not arrest him without being paid. .

“As I was talking to this little girl, it was the first time I connected with my survivor story. I felt like I was looking in the mirror,” says Mpamira. She too was a survivor of sexual violence in Rwanda at the age of 11.

“It struck me that I was either a hypocrite – I didn’t want to do the job I was telling this little girl to do – or I didn’t think I deserved the healing I was giving to others,” recalls- she. . “So this little girl helped me for the first time to say, ‘Me too’.”

She made the decision that day to launch an organized effort to fight for justice for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in sub-Saharan Africa. The timing was tough. Having three young children of her own and starting to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology, Mpamira was a little overwhelmed by the possibility of starting a new business.

“But the voice (in my head) was clear as day: ‘Why do you have the luxury of waiting while they are in pain?”, Said Mpamira. “It didn’t have to be fancy; it was just about seeing the humans in front of me and doing what I can for them. And that’s where it started and how it happened. “

She established the EDJA Foundation, now known as the Mutera Healing Foundation, to provide medical care, mental health counseling and legal aid to survivors of sexual assault, as well as education and awareness on rights. women and the consequences of sexual assault.

It all started small with Mpamira working to find resources for a handful of survivors. The need grew as the news spread, but so did her support network. A hospital offered her a free room to work. A nurse who worked there – a survivor herself – offered her skills.

“She said, ‘I’ll work for free if you can’t afford it, because it’s the first time anyone’s willing to listen to us,” Mpamira said. “So it started to grow like that. And in a short period of time, with the training and education of the community, the number of people understanding that this is a problem and willing to do something has also increased. “


Mpamira addresses a crowd of thousands at a rally against sexual and gender-based violence in East Africa.

In just six years, Mpamira’s organization has expanded its reach into Rwanda and Kenya and has helped hundreds of survivors, men and women, with financial, legal and medical support. He has successfully fought for the convictions of more than 70 perpetrators and challenges the deep-rooted shame and avoidance of survivors of sexual assault through broad outreach through workshops, shows and publicity. demonstrations. Mpamira herself led the first known march against gender-based violence in East Africa in 2018, bringing together thousands of people, from police and civic leaders to families and children to support the cause.

“It takes all of us, adding our pieces to it, to create the change. The people on the ground, even these girls breaking their silence, are doing something to help the next girl do the same,” she said.

Mpamira’s work has gained international recognition, earning her the Female Founders Alliance Advocate Award in July.

“This award or any form of visibility is also telling those who will never tell their story or those who feel lonely that someone is ready to listen to them and that someone believes them. And we are going to work. until we can’t work anymore so it doesn’t happen to someone else, “says Mpamira.” It’s visibility for all those who have gone unnoticed. All the stories that will never be able to see the spaces in which I had the privilege of being. “

Empowered to become a voice for the voiceless, Mpamira has been invited to speak at the Vatican and the United Nations, among other global stages, to share her work and advocate for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. She recently joined a group of other survivors and allies, led by Dr Jennifer Wortham from Harvard University, to speak to a high-level panel at the UN on creating a global day of protection, healing and justice for children affected by sexual violence.

Mpamira speaks in the Vatican.

“How do you hold people and leaders accountable? It keeps me from sleeping at night, ”she says. “What motivates me is that we put an end to this and that my children and future generations never have to do it again.”


In addition to defending and leading his foundation, Mpamira is currently working on a doctorate in clinical psychology from Western. She plans to use the diploma to do more individual work with survivors.

“I love and thrive on this connection helping someone transform their life therapeutically. That’s why I came back (to the US), so that I could help more people. “said Mpamira.

She credits Western teachers and mentors, in particular Dr Amy Naugle and her cohort, which has become a family, for associating her with meaningful research experiences as an undergraduate student and fueling her passion for further education.

“They invest in you as an individual and also give you a space to grow on your own and understand what you want to do,” says Mpamira, who first graduated from WMU in 2006 before graduating. her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Balle State University. “To come back and finish what I started in the same place has been a blessing.”

No matter what titles she wins or what accolades and recognition she receives, Mpamira is focused on one thing: being a catalyst for change.

“I know I should feel proud of myself and happy with the impacts and the changed lives so far, but I end up like, ‘Oh my God, there is so much to do,'” she said. . “It makes me feel overwhelmed but also excited that this is just the beginning.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

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