Marva Zohar: How Helping Survivors Heal Dismantles the Patriarchy

In 2021, The World Health Organization (WHO) published a comprehensive study of sexual and gender-based violence around the globe—finding that one in three women experienced some form of sexual violence between 2000-2018—a “major human rights violation and a global public health problem.”

A third of all women is an astronomical number. It also is, unfortunately, probably low, considering that data was collected by surveying self-reporting survivors. And we know that sexual violence is often wildly under-reported. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), more than two in three rapes in the United States go unreported

Learning to protect ourselves against the potential violence lurking on every street corner and, often, within our own homes is a rite of passage. Mothers teach daughters not to walk on dark streets. Friends teach one another how to put keys between fingers, in lieu of brass knuckles. When we do this, though, we (falsely) believe we’re managing the problem as best we can.   

Recently, I spoke to a woman who has decided this problem is fixable—and she’s dedicating her life to doing something about it. Marva Zohar is the woman behind the Israeli NGO Ohela (or AMEN: Land Where Women Heal). Zohar envisions a world where the patriarchal designs of society have been dismantled and gender-based violence is unimaginable. To her, a future devoid of sexual violence actually seems possible. “Sometimes when I try to explain what [AMEN] is and why we need it, I feel like I’m going a little bit crazy, because it’s so obvious to me,” she told me, in a recent interview, laughing. “It’s like trying to explain why we need a sun.”

AMEN is a movement borne of the philosophy that by giving survivors of violence the space and support they deserve in order to heal, we can dismantle the patriarchy. Zohar acknowledges that this sounds like an ambitious, even lofty, goal, but says that’s no reason not to believe. “It’s actually insane to accept [constant fear] as our reality,” she told me, “The idea that we’re supposed to live afraid of our power, of walking alone at night, of going to public bathrooms alone shouldn’t be a fact of life. It’s not something that we need to accept; we can do better. And I believe that we’re ready and able. It’s time to heal this wound.”

Currently, AMEN consists of a pilot program in the Northern Israeli town of Kiryat Tivon, an eco-village that combines both residential and outpatient treatment for survivors of violence. In Hebrew, the name is an acronym of Admat Marpeh Nashit, which means Land Where Women Heal, and a spiritual connection to the natural world is a big part of what the team does. The residential program houses 12 people at a time; the program has a waiting list of over 200 applicants.“We accept all people who define themselves as women and are over 18 years of age,” says Zohar, “Some come with their kids, and they can all stay for anywhere from three months to three years.” 

There are 12 additional people in the outpatient program—they come in for daily activities and therapy—and 12 more who have graduated but stay connected to the community and help new attendees during their recovery process. 

Zohar is, herself, a survivor of a vicious sexual assault, perpetrated by a gang of men when she was a preteen. Her own journey of post-traumatic mental health struggles, alarming personal experiences with the mental health services and authorities, and the suffering of other women she knew as a young woman have all informed her work with AMEN. “Once, at a group therapy session, I was told not to talk about these things, that it’s not appropriate,” says Zohar, “When I went to the Knesset, the Minister of Health told me that he couldn’t discuss these topics because it’s immodest. My friends’ doctors told them it was all in their heads. At some point,  I started seeing it wasn’t just anecdotal—it was systemic.”

She had experimented with various forms of community building and activism in the past. As a teen, she launched a ‘Red Tent’ project in her hometown of Nataf, where women of all ages came together to host alternative rites of passage and support one another through fertility struggles, menopause, and invent life cycle rituals. As a young woman, she trained as a midwife and attended births across the United States and, for a time, in Uganda. It was only after returning to Israel that she decided to bring her experiences together to create a space for healing. The idea for the eco-village came to her after a close friend took her own life, unable to hold the suffering any longer. “She left a letter,” says Zohar,” and in it she asked me to make sure there is a place for us to heal. In that moment I took a vow to do everything I could to make it happen.”

To Zohar, one of the biggest challenges is recognizing the ways in which the “wounds of the patriarchy” are inside of us, dismantling the thought patterns that trap us in a culture of harm. “Some things will either explode inside of you or they’ll explode out of you,” she told me, “So the question becomes how to take that self violence and turn it into sacred rage that can move the mountain in front of you. That’s spiritual work that’s like alchemy, taking wounds and turning them into medicine, taking pain and turning it into power and leadership, taking that sword that you’ve swallowed, and turning it into a pen.”

Eventually, she imagines every country in the world having a Land Where Women Heal. “Stopping and making room for the pain and healing actually makes the world safe. Until we do that, we can’t change culture. We can’t make it safe until we think about what each attack means, how much this will devastate her whole life, her partner’s life, her children’s lives. When we stop and make room for it, we can’t accept it anymore.” The next phase is a bigger space in Israel, one that can accommodate more participants. After that—the world. 

Photos courtesy of AMEN.