In Somalia, an exercise program for survivors of sexual violence is helping participants overcome trauma.
It’s a trendy program in an unlikely place.
In classes across the Somali capital of Mogadishu, youths practice breathing, meditation and stretching.
Dressed in matching blue track suits, the color of the Somali flag, they hold difficult poses.
Breaking into sweat, they reach to the ceiling, stretch their arms to their toes, and balance carefully on one foot, as an instructor calls out directions.
But it’s not just for fun.
This mind-body wellness program, as it’s called here, is for survivors of sexual violence and other trauma to help them in their counseling.
Organizers asked VOA not to reveal names of participants or instructors for security reasons.
One participant, who survived sexual assault, says the physical activity and mental concentration has helped her regain a sense of normalcy.
Initially, she had anxiety, she says, but is better now. And at one point, she says, she couldn’t eat, but can do so now. She says the program has helped her cope, and when a memory of what happened to her returns, she does the exercises to help her forget.
Somalia has seen decades of war and lawlessness, so besides survivors of sexual violence, there are former child soldiers and other youths suffering from trauma or at risk of recruitment into armed groups.
For survivors of physical attacks, the mind-body wellness complements traditional counseling techniques which usually only focus on psychology.
Instructors empower their students by urging them to take control of their breathing and their bodies.
One instructor, a case manager for sexual assault survivors, says even 15 minutes of meditation and stretching per day can help a survivor.
She says it helps if the body is settled and the mind at is ease. If you close your eyes, breathe in and out, calm yourself and keep still, she says, then you can help ease your mind.
The mind-body wellness program began last year with 12 Somali instructors trained by the Africa Yoga Project, a Nairobi-based nonprofit group.
Following rules, breaking barriers
Organizers are quick to point out that the program in Mogadishu is not the same as the Indian spiritual practice. Spiritual elements have been removed from the program, and poses have been modified in accordance with Islamic practice.
For instance, during moments of meditation, participants hold their hands in their laps instead of pressing them together.
Even so, the program breaks barriers in conservative Somali society, where there are strict gender roles, including surrounding access to athletics programs.
“They say that what a boy can do, a girl cannot do, but that’s not true,” one participant said. “That’s a lie. It’s the way you carry yourself. I try to do what a boy can do.”
Some 300 people participate in the mind-body wellness classes each week.
Kalson Ahmed, a protection officer for the U.N. Children’s Fund, which funds the program, says there aren’t enough services for survivors of sexual violence in Somalia, including access to justice or basic health care.
“The response services are getting increased day after day,” Ahmed said, “but the prevention activities and the overall system-building needs to be done. We can provide response as much as we can … fund millions and millions, but we didn’t cure the problem.”
At least for these women and men stretching their muscles in Mogadishu each week, there is renewed hope for healing.