Reclaiming the Fragmented Self through Conflict Resolution

By Mercedes Llarinas-Angeles




Presented at International Conference on Conflict Resolution: Peace and Development on 28-29 October, 2003 organised by BIRLA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY & SCIENCE,

Pilani, Rajasthan, India


Imbalances of  power in relationships, which could be social, political, or economic lie at the root of most conflicts in our families, communities, in society and in the world.  Disempowerment, violence, oppression, un-kept promises, and violations of agreements by the powerful partner or party are the cause of many conflicts, and could become consequences as well, leading to cycles,  spirals, and eventually a culture of violence.


Women are most often the less powerful partners or parties in these conflicts.  History and current experiences show that women are also most vulnerable to violence and oppression due to their subordinate status to men. 

            Women’s basic rights have been violated in most of our recorded history.  In times of war and peace, women have experienced violence from the men in their lives and from the patriarchal society in general.   Pervasive misconceptions and stereotyped views in our society relegate violence which happens in homes or within relationships to a personal issue.

           In many societies, women are defined as inferior and the right to dominate them is considered an essential aspect of being male.  Violence against women takes place because the perpetrators feel, and their environment encourages them to feel, that this is an acceptable exercise of male prerogative, a legitimate and appropriate way to relieve their own tension in conditions of stress, to sanction female behavior – or just to enjoy the feeling of supremacy. [i]

            It is only in recent years that women’s rights have been accepted as human rights, through the efforts of the women’s movement across all countries.  The affirmation of women’s rights as human rights are strategically valuable because they express, in the broadest terms, basic values of human dignity and social justice, which have been denied to women for centuries.

Yet women have always struggled  and survived over their  experiences of violence. In this paper, I shall share with you how women survivors are recovering from the effects of trauma due to violence in their lives and contributing towards our understanding of conflict and ways to solving conflict.

Searching for the Path to Recovery From Trauma

            My interest in finding paths to healing and recovery of traumatized people stems from my own experiences from political oppression during the days of martial rule in the Philippines. 

            While the dictator Marcos  was ousted in 1986, many women and men who joined the ranks of freedom fighters during the years of martial law soon learned that working for a non-violent society will require much more work.  At the same time we have to deal with our own experiences and traumas from different forms of violence.

            Thus, I am also a participant in the journey to wholeness which I am talking about in this paper, which will have three main parts.

First, in line with the theme of the Conference on the Impact of Conflicts on Women and Children. [ii]  I will share the findings of the 2002 Philippine Country Report on Violence Against Women in general, and Abuse Of Women Intimate Relationships (AWIR) [iii]    in particular.  Here,  we looked at the statistics and   in-depth studies and profiles available in the Philippines that  show the devastating effects of violence on women’s physical, mental and psychological health.

            The second part will show the framework for recovery that I am developing together with the women survivors of violence in an Action Research: on “Journey to Empowerment of Survivors of Trafficking  Through Conflict Resolution”:   An earlier research study which I did on “developing an ethic of caring for women survivors of violence” provided the basis for the framework which we developed in our action research.

            The third part will describe ongoing efforts to develop strategies that will contribute to the recovery of women survivors of abuse.  This involved the conduct of conflict resolution workshops which I shall briefly describe here.

Violence Against Women: Definition, Causes and Effects

Violence against women  is prevalent  in a society where there is an unequal balance of power between men, and woman and children, thus  creating social conditions that tolerate abuses against women.  Abuse of women has become a part of the “normal order “ of things in most societies, including the Philippines.

            In 1948, a world shocked by the horrors of man’s brutality welcomed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reaffirmed ‘faith in fundamental  human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, (and) in the equal rights of men and women”.  Since then, women continued to be treated as less human and without dignity in many countries of the world. 

             It was not until 1979 that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted.  The Convention essentially constitutes the international  bill of rights of women, called on ::“State Parties to)condemn discrimination  against women in all forms, agree to pursue      by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women…”   Discrimination against women was defined to mean  any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic,  social cultural, civil or any other field. [iv]

            The  CEDAW did not specifically discuss violence against women. In  recognition of its prevalence, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) in 1993.

According to Article 2 of the Declaration,  violence against women (VAW) shall be understood to encompass, but not to be limited to, the following:

a)    Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;

b)    Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;

c)    Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.


The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women calls on all governments to : develop in a comprehensive way, preventive approaches and all those measures of a legal, political, administrative and cultural nature that promote the protection of women against any form of violence, and ensure that the re-victimization of women does not occur because of  gender-insensitive laws, enforcement practices or other interventions. [v]

.            In the same year, the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”  Forty-five years after the acceptance that human beings have basic rights; women were finally recognized as human beings, equally deserving  of basic rights.  Yet these international agreements and instruments  remain to be implemented   in many countries of the world.

Violence Against Women: The Silent Epidemic

Violence against women remains to be a social malady that is difficult to name, and speak about in Philippine society and in the world.  Yet the problem is so prevalent and serious, prompting feminist medical experts to call it a “silent epidemic.” 

In the Philippines, even the government agencies that collect statistics, can not tell how many women endure violence within their lives, whether inside the home or not.    The National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB) stated that society in general and families, in particular, consider domestic problems and difficulties as private affairs and they are not likely to report these events.  The stigma attached to domestic violence discourages victims and their families from reporting these incidence to authorities. [vi]

In October 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the World Report on Violence and Health, the first comprehensive, global review of current knowledge on violence.  Its findings show  that nearly half the  women who die due to homicide are killed by their current or former husband or boyfriend.  In fact violence accounts for approximately 7% of all deaths among women aged  16-44  worldwide. [vii]

The report also showed that, in some countries, up to 69% of women reported having been physically assaulted and up  to  47% of women reported that  their first sexual intercourse was forced . [viii]

    The findings of our “Philippine Country Report:  Baseline Study on Abuse of Women in Intimate Relationships”  revealed that physical injuries, rape and wife battery were the most reported forms of VAW.   The most common forms of physical violence were:  beating that included slapping, boxing, punching, choking, head banging, hair pulling and kicking, beating with the use of blunt objects that included belt, baseball bat, wooden stick, etc,. tying  the hands, feet, strangulation; and throwing hot/cold liquid at the  survivor.


   The physical effects of abuse include various types of minor and serious injuries to the body, including death    The most common effects of physical abuse were:

Ø    Physical Injuries (cuts, lacerations, gunshots and bolo wounds, bruises, contusions, retinal hemorrhage, hematomas, black eyes,  skull cracks)

Ø    Muscular/Body pains (arthritis, joint pains)

Ø    Migraines, headaches

Ø    Chills, fever, infection

Ø    Broken teeth and bones, fractured jaws

There are other perceived consequences to the women’s physical health:

Ø    Heart problems (breathing difficulties, chest pains palpitation)

Ø    Dizziness, vomiting

Ø    Weight Loss

Ø    Anemia, malnourishment

      While physical abuse should never be condoned or tolerated, the women respondents in the report quoted above all said that the emotional trauma was the more serious effect of abuse.  Emotional and psychological crippling, whether temporary or permanent, have been cited as having the more critical debilitating effects on victims.

From their action research [ix] involving more than 900 survivors, the Women’s Crisis Center documented the perceived effects on mental health to include:


Ø    Fear, anxiety, nervousness

Ø    Depression, crying spells

Ø    Loss of self esteem, shame, guilt, lack of confidence

Ø    Anger, hostility

Ø    Sleeping disorders (insomnia, hypersomnia, nightmares, bad/recurring dreams)

Ø    Self hatred, self blaming

Ø    Death wish for abuser

Ø    Lethargy, passivity

Ø    Suicidal thoughts, attempts

Ø    Eating disorders, loss of appetite

Ø    Phobias (loud sounds, darkness, heights, being alone)

Ø    Denial, minimizing the experience

Ø    Mood swings

Ø    Lack of concentration, short attention span

Ø    Selective memory, memory loss

Ø    Self isolation

Ø    Shocked, numbness (natulala)

Ø    Fear of intimacy, attachment

Ø    Hypervigilance, alertness (magugulatin)

Psychologists have diagnosed these perceived effects as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There have been a number of studies done by feminist psychologists which identify the trauma undergone by victims of domestic violence as similar to that undergone by prisoners in captivity.  The symptoms of combat neurosis displayed by political prisoners or prisoners of war, such as those in Vietnam, and in the Philippines,  are the same as those of rape survivors and battered women. [x]


Post –Traumatic Stress Disorder

            The findings on the effects on women’s mental health show that women (and children) survivors  of trauma may eventually be diagnosed for acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of the dissociative disorders, or a personality disorder. 

Dr. Courtois, a psychiatrist who has extensively studied the effects of sexual abuse on children and adults, states that existing theoretical models imply that traumatic events eventually cause posttraumatic symptoms or reactions, although they are not always problematic, severe, or long-lasting.  however, when the symptoms are of sufficient strength and duration, they may meet criteria for a diagnosis of the above-mentioned disorders.” [xi]

Post-traumatic stress disorder was accepted by the medical community when it was introduced, after long debates, in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistica Manual in 1980 (DSM-III)   According to the Manual, the essential feature of the disorder is the development of characteristic symptoms following a particularly distressing event that is outside the range of normal human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone.

Feminist psychiatrists like Judith Herman state that: “even the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder as it is presently defined, does not fit accurately enough.  The existing diagnostic criteria for this disorder are derived mainly from survivors of circumscribed traumatic events.  They are based on the prototypes of combat, disaster, and rape.  In survivors of prolonged, repeated trauma, the symptom picture is often more complex.” [xii] 

Herman posits that prolonged, repeated trauma such as that experienced by survivors of domestic battering, should be called “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” since the responses to trauma  involve a spectrum of conditions rather than a single disorder.  Personality changes have been observed to follow prolonged, repeated trauma.[xiii]

Abused women within the privacy of their homes and relationships are captives without prison bars,  restrained not by  chains, but by threats,  tortured not so much by physical pain but by psychological trauma.  But women who experience enslavement through trafficking talk of being actually held captive in foreign lands [xiv], physically and sexually abused any time by any number of men - for months or years.  Women victims of violence, whether within  the home or outside are disempowered by a process which breaks down their autonomy, self-respect and connection to the community.


    A Framework for Recovery from Trauma

According to the analysis of feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman, psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless.  At the moment of trauma, due to a violent act, like torture, rape, or battery,  the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. [xv]

          Women are traumatized and rendered powerless (disempowered)  in a society that considers their oppression as “normal” [xvi].  Since the 1960s therapists like R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and others have insisted that all emotional and psychological problems affecting women and men were caused by society’s oppression.  However, feminist psychotherapist Betty McLellan says that there is still not enough known about psychotic conditions which may be caused by chemical imbalances.   Presently, feminists agree that most emotional and psychological problems affecting women are rooted in oppression. [xvii]

Therefore, recovery for a woman who has  experienced trauma requires that she should be freed from  the oppressive situation and  become regain her personal power.

            What does the process of recovery and empowerment for a VAW survivor mean ?

            According to Judith Herman and other feminists, recovery is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.  She refers to empowerment as “the convergence of mutual  support and  individual autonomy, where autonomy is defined as  'a sense of separateness, flexibility, self-possession, sufficient to define one’s self-interest and make significant choices'.” [xviii]

Through in depth interviews with seventeen  women survivors of violence in my research on the services  that women needed for their recovery; and workshops with around 25 women survivors of various forms of sexual abuse,  it became very clear to me that   before a  VAW victim can even start to really talk about her experience, she needs a safe environment, where she is physically protected from her abuser. It is only in such an environment where a VAW survivor will be willing and able to tell her story. Thus finding safety and protection is an essential first step in the journey to recovery.

While it is possible that women who have high ability for coping  could have transformed an abusive relationship to one which is free from abuse,  I have not heard of documentation of such cases in the Philippines and will not touch on that.  The survivors I have met talked of nervous breakdown,  suicide attempts or  attempts to kill the abuser; cases of insanity and death have been recorded, as shown in  the studies on  VAW quoted above.

According to Herman, reconstructing the trauma story is an essential step in the recovery of the VAW survivor:   The ordinary response to atrocities is to ban them from consciousness  Certain violations of  the world are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. [xix]   Therefore the VAW/trauma survivor must be able to reconstruct the trauma story, and mourn the loss of an old self in order to create a new self.

The effort of reconstructing her story  actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story. [xx]

The women survivors of violence say that the scars from “psychological wounds”  caused by violence  were more difficult to heal than the physical wounds.  They talked about their sense of feeling “broken”, “the fragmented self” which needed to be made whole again.

      The VAW survivor who has not healed her psychological wounds  experiences a lot of self-conflicts.  Self-conflicts among VAW survivors are  the cause of so much frustration that could lead to destructive patterns of behavior, which, when acted out,  lead to more frustration and lower self- esteem..  .  The low self-esteem that most survivors still hold for themselves continues to be reflected in their everyday dealings with people, including their  own support group members. The internal conflicts they have suppressed in themselves also manifest in external conflicts .  This becomes a hindrance in the recovery process where restoring connections to others is a very important step.

Since the experience of being powerless isolates the woman and disconnects her from friends, family and society,  restoring the connection between the survivor and her community is essential for her recovery.   Though for battered women who become physical captives in their homes this is literally true, others experience disconnection mentally and psychologically with the feeling that  “they have no one to turn to.”

In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience.  These faculties include the basic capacity for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy. [xxi]

      In an Action Planning workshop which was held last February, 2003,  after the series of workshops on conflict resolution (which I shall briefly describe below), around 25 women who have experienced rape, prostitution and trafficking discussed and analyzed their experiences. They agreed that the following framework for recovery was relevant to their experience of recovery:

The Journey to Recovery [xxii]


Establishing safety, restoring
bodily integrity for the victim


Reconstructing the trauma story
and mourning the loss of the old self


Making one’s self whole again


Restoring damaged connections to others,
through community involvement.


In order to recover from the experience of trauma, a survivor of a violent experience needs to be able to reconstruct and tell her story.  Only through this process, which could be very painful, can she finally mourn her losses,  accept that something in her has died.   Then she can reclaim the fragmented self, and start leading a new life.  At this point she is ready to re-integrate to the community, and may choose to continue her healing process by helping others in return.

We are not saying that such a process, towards recovery is a linear and orderly one. Yet persons working with trauma survivors recognize these stages.  Reconstruction of the trauma story is a critical step in the journey towards personal healing.   We believe that being able to tell one’s story, whether orally, written or both is an empowering act.  For the “wounded  woman”, it is a healing act. 


Reclaiming the Fragmented Self Through Conflict Resolution

      Conflict arises within individuals when the attainment of their needs, wants is frustrated, and the values dear to them are violated.  These individuals form a collective consciousness that breeds conflict  in the community, in society, and in the world.  

      Conflicts within the self, if not completely acknowledged and resolved can always come back . No matter how one tries to bury one’s wounds and conflicts, they will just  resurface,  causing further pain and confusion.  For survivors of violence,  patterns of self-destructive behavior may be already deeply embedded in the psyche, and this can be manifested in external conflicts.

            My search for models for healing trauma and resolving conflicts brought me to  India where I trained on Conflict Resolution with the Asian Institute for Resolution of Conflict and Working for Peace and Development (AIRCOD).

            In 2002, an NGO working with women survivors of violence invited me to work with them for the development of a training workshop module on conflict resolution among the women survivors of violence; after they heard that I was interested in piloting conflict resolution courses in the Philippines.  Around 25 women survivors of violence, participated in a series of workshops on “A Journey to Empowerment Through Conflict Resolution.”

            The main part of the training included  story-telling: exercises.  The participants went through a guided review of their life experiences since childhood.  The purposes of this story-telling exercise are: first,  to encourage the woman to talk about her experience and express her feelings; and second, to guide her to become  aware of the patterns of behavior  which have been formed, leading to conflicts  Being aware of these patterns is like holding the keys to changing one’s self because the person can decide to change her pattern of behavior.

            Unlike the usual story-telling exercise, they focused on every stage of their life from early childhood up to maturity (the present).  They were encouraged to express their feelings and reactions to the experiences of abuse. Almost all of the 25 women participants had  experienced being trafficked and prostituted.  These meant continuous sexual abuse over many years in a foreign land.

      The participants easily immersed into the process of drawing out feelings and were very perceptive in helping to analyze the others’ experiences, although they admitted it is much easier to analyze the conflicts undergone by another person.  They could easily relate to the other participants’ sharings, for they had all gone through  similar experiences. While one volunteer participant was sharing her experience, the others were reflecting on their lives. 

      One of the participants said:  “Napakagandang malaman ang kahulugan ng conflict, mailabas ang nasa puso, hindi dapat itago. (It is very good to know the meaning of conflict, to reveal what is in one’s heart, it should not be hidden).

      The focus of the sharing process was on every experience, in particular conflict as an opportunity for energising oneself and learning.   To the women who have bottled up their feelings  for many years, being able to open up and to reconstruct their  trauma story  was very cathartic.   Ako dati, parang may daga sa dibdib,  ngayon ang saya-saya,”  (Before, I had a heavy heart, it felt like there was a mouse in my chest,   now I am very happy.), said a participant who was able to  narrate her story in full for the first time.

            The realization that their reactions  to the experiences of abuse and oppression, and the conflict were “healthy and normal” proved to be a liberating experience to  the survivors.   To acknowledge that they are undergoing a conflict means that they have a choice, and they have the power to change their lives.

            The women then analyzed their reactions to see if there have been patterns of behavior formed.  For many survivors, low self-esteem has become a trap, an effect of abuse which later leads them to enter abusive relations, not only sexual, but also with family members and even business partners.  A participant  continued to send her earnings from prostitution in Japan  to  her relatives in   the Philippines, in an effort to gain their respect ; even if she knew that they were squandering her money.  Yet deep inside her she felt hatred for her family members, and most of all, for herself.  For the VAW survivors, experiences like this led to deep-seated conflicts within the  self which sometimes led to self-destructive behaviors, like drug addiction.

The VAW survivor  explored her weaknesses and mistakes, not to blame herself, but, rather, as Herman says: “she becomes aware of the opportunity of learning from the traumatic experience, no matter how expensive the price that she paid. [xxiii]

            In analyzing their needs and values, the women looked at the sources of these needs and values, which lie in the family, educational system, religion, and social norms.  The pervading patriarchal system was identified to be the source of the prevalent misconception that women were inferior human beings and powerless to change their situation.

          The workshops provided time and space for the women to reflect on their responses to life and the patterns of behavior that have been crystallized.  This led to greater self-knowledge.

            The exercise on Paradigm Shift: had the objective of leading to changes in the person’s  patterns of behavior, after the individual has analyzed what she wants to change in herself.  The core message is that a person  can take control of her life by deciding to break the patterns of behavior that she needs and wants to change.

In a broader context, all women in a patriarchal society are constantly striving to create spaces for their empowerment, to break male domination in all spheres.  And we know that we are still a long way off the mark.  The battle to change the world will be a long  and frustrating one, but winning the battle to change one’s self brings self-mastery, empowerment and  wholeness.



Christine A. Courtois, PhD, Recollections of Sexual Abuse, Treatment Principles and Guidelines, 1st ed. New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Lori L. Haise,  Jacqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germaine, World Bank Discussion Papers: “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden”, Washington DC, 1994

Judith Herman, PhD. Trauma and Recovery. New York,  Basicbooks, 1992

Mercedes Llarinas-Angeles, Towards an Ethic of Caring for Women Survivors of Violence. currently being published by the Center for Reproductive Health, Rights and Research (REPROCEN) and the Ford Foundation- Philippines.

Betty, McLellan, PhD, Beyond PsychOppression,: A Feminist Alternative Therapy, Australia: Spinifex Press, 1995.

National Statistics Coordination Board, Women and Men in the Philippines: 1999 Statistical Handbook .Manila: NSCB, 1999.

United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Women’s Legal Bureau. 2002 Philippine Country Report:  Baseline Study on Abuse of Women in Intimate Relationships.  In the process of publication with support from the  International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW).

World Health Organization,  World Report on Violence and Health, released last October 2002.  It can be downloaded at

Unpublished project documentation


Ms Angeles has been a trainer and consultant for the management and strengthening of organizations in the Philippines for the last fifteen years.  She conducts research and policy studies particularly on women’s concerns.

[i]Haise, Lori L. Pitanguy, Jacqueline and Germaine, Adrienne, World Bank Discussion Papers: “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden”, Washington DC, 1994, p. 29
[ii] Violence against children is also a very important concern, but it is not covered in this paper because there us a separate set of  data involving children that needs  a different analysis. This is not included in the scope of my work.
[iii] Abuse of women in intimate relationships means that the perpetrator may be the husband, ex-husband live-in partner, boyfriend or dating partner in heterosexual or homosexual relationships.  In our report we highlighted AWIR so that our findings can be used in the advocacy work for the passage of the pending law against AWIR in the Philippine legislature. 
[iv] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Articles 1 and 2.
[v] Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Article 4 (f).
[vi] National Statistics Coordination Board, Women and Men in the Philippines: 1999 Statistical Handbook
(Manila: NSCB, 1999), P. 6
[vii] World Health Organization,  World Report on Violence and Health, released last October 2002.  It can be downloaded at
[viii]   WHO, ibid.

[ix] Women’s Crisis Center  Feminist Action Research on the Impact of VAW On Women’s Health, One of the in-depth studies included in the Baseline Report.

[x] Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basicbooks, 1992), p. 6

[xi] Courtois, Christine A. PhD, Recollections of Sexual Abuse, Treatment Principles and Guidelines, 1st ed. (New York:  W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.,1999), p. 78
[xii] Herman,  p.119
[xiii] Ibid.   p.119
[xiv] The women may have traveled to another country using fake documents.  Even if they have valid passports, their papers are usually taken by their “employers”.  In many documented cases, the trafficked women were locked up inside the brothels or houses maintained by prostitutions syndicates.
[xv] Herman, ibid. p. 33