Trauma Dolls – Reconciliation Through Therapeutic Self-Expression

A new practice implemented by RET International in Mardin, Türkiye, is aimed at relieving trauma, while stimulating personal expression.

In the room, we can hear the voices of the violence, the fear and the pain in every sound. The dolls are on the wall, hung from the ceiling with ropes, tied to a ladder, placed on shelves. They, the dolls, are women; they each tell a different story.

The impact is indeed deep when we walk into the “Trauma Dolls” exhibition, because this is the result of a process of women beginning to heal. The dolls were each individually created by women who had experienced or witnessed gender-based violence and each represents a woman’s suffering. This is part of RET International’s programme on gender-based violence (GBV).

Fifty-two of the 65 trauma dolls told stories that involved at least one type of gender-based violence. The thirteen dolls that expressed happiness, involved model behavior expected from women in terms of gender rules and roles.

Our work with Trauma Dolls ultimately led to an exhibition that opened in the Mardin Museum (Southeastern Türkiye), late May 2016. This process required a thorough curatorial direction, as the exhibition displayed the dolls, communicated the work of the women, while incorporating proper media to add to the visitor’s experience.

In order to try to convey just how moving this exhibition was, we created a few videos here below which will allow you to immerse yourself in the images, sound and stories of the Trauma Dolls. After these videos, you can continue reading the article and find out more on the methods we developed and the benefits they provide.

The Trauma Dolls Approach

Fabricating Trauma Dolls (fabric dolls stuffed, sewn and decorated by participants as they see fit) is a novel and innovative approach offered by RET International to Syrian and host community participants in Mardin, Türkiye.

This approach allows the participants to transfer their experience into a tangible form. It allows for reconciliation, while imbuing handiwork with a special meaning and stimulating genuine personal and creative expression.

Furthermore, Trauma Dolls provide a vector of scalability to humanities (where quantitative methods do not compare with those of the sciences), while indicating the scale of the traumatic experiences the participants had gone through.

The work with Trauma Dolls focused on 20 displaced Syrian women and 40 local Turkish women aged from 17 to 28, all living in Mardin. These women have gone through traumatic experiences, being exposed to an array of gender-based violence and have been unable to recover from such traumas due to social and cultural reasons.


The women living in MOKID’s (Mardin Women’s Cooperative Association) operation field in Mardin were given trainings on gender-based violence, child neglect and abuse, women’s rights, domestic violence and communication for 4 weeks. The participants were also offered individual psychological consultancy services by RET International’s Social Services Specialist upon request.

The women who participated in these trainings were then asked by our Social Services Specialist to make a doll, in which they could embody the scarring experiences of either their lives or the lives of others they had been witness to. Part of the exercise also consisted in writing their stories, in their own words, and attach them to the dolls they had made. The women were informed that participation in the activity was entirely voluntary and those who did not choose to participate would not be forced to do anything.

The women who wanted to make a doll were offered rag doll making, sewing and ornamentation trainings by a MOKID Handicrafts Instructor for 2 weeks. Since none of the women wanted it to be recognised as author of a specific doll, they made the bodies of the dolls and then worked on the details such as drawing the face and sewing the clothes, etc. at home.

After a week, they were asked to leave their dolls and their stories in chests placed at several locations of the MOKID Center when there was no one around according to principles of confidentiality.

The dolls left by the women were arranged and numbered together with the stories by RET International employees based on the types of gender-based violence or on cases not representing gender-based violence. Due to the necessity of confidentiality, neither RET International employees nor MOKID personnel knew which dolls and which stories belonged to whom.


At the first stage of the activity, the stories were directly listed in order not to interfere in the feelings and thoughts of the writers. The thorough analysis of the dolls and stories by an Expert Psychoanalyst or an Existential Therapist and Psychologist in consideration of individual, cultural and organic factors and analysis of the same as the following subject headings make up the data analysis process: –To have a subjective meaning for the individual; – Duration of exposure; –Suddenness of exposure (being caught off-guard); – To have a catastrophic effect; – To be caused by humans; – To involve a death threat; –To be accompanied by physical injury; –   To involve brutality and inhumane treatment; – To evoke a feeling of guilt in the individual; – Individual feeling in a tight corner.

All in all, the work with Trauma Dolls was a rewarding and inspiring project that expanded the practical and theoretical horizons of RET International’s work in Mardin and the region. The importance of empowering women, a crucial vector in RET International’s mandate and project components has been once more highlighted, this time putting into action a totally new approach.

This program have been made possible through the generous support of several donors, including funds of RET International, UNICEF, UNFPA and some goverments and private donors.