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Altering Gender-Based Violence and Trauma

By Nyala Thompson Grunwald

Disclaimer: This article contains language and descriptions of physical and sexual violence that may be triggering.

The 16 Days of Activism that reckon with Gender-Based Violence begins this Thursday. This blog will attempt to address the GBV trauma suffered by women and men identified/identifying – by choosing that phrasing I mean how people are identified as opposed to how people identify themselves, a distinction which I believe is made when accounting for an agency that is not often possible – transgender and gender non-conforming people. To be clear, my posit is that we should get to a point where trauma-informed communication, care and policy are no longer necessary for purposes of survival, but where preventative policies and structures exist so that GBV does not ever happen in the first place. As a side-note, I will attempt to be as all-encompassing in my vocabulary as I can, with the reminder that I am constantly checking myself to learn and correct whenever need be.

Gender-Based Violence is a plural term. Sabri and Granger cite the definition of GBV as “the violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between the two genders, within the context of a specific society” (Sabri, Granger et al, 2019). While the latter part of that definition is circumscribed within a binary conception of gender, it is still relevant if we think of that definition as any form of violence produced by gender-normative roles and interactions. What’s considerably interesting is the precision that societies produce GBV differently – Kela Roberts’ blog on the topic is incredibly comprehensive and analytical on that topic, referring to Trinbagonian culture. Given that, it can be reasonable that the subsequent forms of trauma engendered are also socio-culturally distinct – among other degrees of distinction.

Gender-Based Violence takes many forms, of physical violence, emotional, mental violence… and more. For instance, a survey effected in the USA in 2015, focusing on transgender-based violence, had some of the following results: 46% of the group polled reported having been verbally harassed at least once that year, 47% reported having been sexually violated during their lifetime thus far (Vawnet, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 2015). Moreover, 65% of the group polled reported having experienced homelessness, and of the non-whites of the group polled, 53% reported having been physically violated during their lifetime thus far (ibid).

Now, the usual questions about how these statistics were gathered, who was polled, where and when is always relevant when taking in statistical surveys. Beyond that, what that survey crucially suggests is that social and economic factors are significant variables in the GBV that trans communities are victims to. And this is specific to the US in 2015. What would that same survey, issued in the USA at this point in time indicate?

In the Latin-American region and the Caribbean, Lanham et al determined that GBV directed towards trans women was both sustained and sometimes enabled by the relevant authorities (Lanham et al, 2019). In a study issued in El Salvador, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago regarding GBV in schools, the results indicated that trans people’s education was impeded on by both peers and staff – the peers in forms of verbal and physical assault, the staff in forms of mis-marking students’ papers, threatening physical violence or being complicit to peer-provoked violence (ibid). In healthcare systems, a study issued in the Caribbean and Latin American countries demonstrated tha, among other forms of discrimination, trans women were simply denied healthcare (ibid).

Similarly, regarding police systems, the group polled indicated brutal forms of physical violence and sexual assault (ibid). The Lanham et al article is deeply comprehensive in detailing how this survey came about, how the statistics and data were gathered, when and where…etc (ibid). The two studies above referred to the GBV enacted towards trans communities, where other studies indicate the GBV men-identifying/identified people, non-gender-conforming people suffer (Vawnet 2015, Lanham et al 2019, Elkins et al 2017, Sanchez 2019). Horrifyingly so, yet unfortunately unsurprising, the stigmas regarding reporting or treating  any forms of GBV for communities of any gender are still deeply systemically entrenched, variable to respective socio-cultural norms. 

Sabri, Granger et al discuss the trauma induced by GBV as, over time, becoming ‘biologically embedded’ (Sabri, Granger et al, 2019). This is crucial. The article discusses the long term physiological consequences that GBV can have (ibid). Sabri and Granger start by referring to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response inherent in any person’s makeup, stress responses that are triggered (the article’s choice of vocabulary) by some form of stress (ibid). The repeated triggering of these responses can generate what the authors refer to as ‘toxic stress’, the “prolonged, frequent, and/or severe or extreme activation of the stress response due to exposure to adverse life experiences…” (ibid). The producing and reproducing of this stress then becomes ‘biologically embedded’, a “process by which individuals’ previous experiences and environments systematically alter their health and functioning across the life span” (ibid).

Consider this: the repetition of GBV or GBV-induced stress and trauma becomes entrenched in a person’s cognitive, sensory and biological makeup, and -somewhat simplistically- digs away at a person’s health over time. You know those construction sites where you see machines digging into, upturning and ripping away land? Let’s imagine that a person’s body is that land, and that the digging and upturning of soil is the lasting effects of stress, trauma induced by repeated forms of GBV – it’s a fairly simplified analogy. Then consider the intersectional spaces that each person occupies, for instance what Sabri, Granger et al term as ‘minority stress’, indicating people of any projected or system-enforced minority suffering from plural forms of GBV trauma (Sabri, Granger et al, 2019). Understand the depth to which GBV trauma alters a person’s body, self and identity.

Most crucially, if we recall Sabri, Granger et al’s cited definition of GBV, as any form of violence produced by gender-normative roles and interactions, then we all, to varying extents, have suffered and are suffering some form of GBV trauma (ibid). This in no way negates or falsely equates to the communities who are so disportionately affected by this in their material realities, however I do think it is crucial to take a breath and consider this, personally, and within your respective support systems.

Regarding possible solutions to all forms of GBV, the research gathered for this blog is incredibly interesting (SabrI, Granger et al 2019, Lanham et al 2017, Elkins et al 2019, Vawnet 2015, Sanchez 2019). Two focal points are the necessity for gender-responsive and trauma-informed care, and the significance of the resilience of those who are victims of any form of GBV (Sanchez 2019). Let’s clarify something here: resilience is a powerful thing. It is a vast part of what makes up the identities of (systemic-enforced) minority communities. We talk of the resilience of Caribbean cultures, academics write of the resilience of descendants of enslaved and oppressed populations, of the resilience of communities that have suffered or are suffering some form of oppression today. The term ‘gender resilience’ arose in the research gathered for this blog (Elkins et al 2019). Stories of resilience as we interact with, find out about, or live them are awe-inspiring, and testament to the strength of we as people. What is not inspiring in the least, is that – to whatever extent – this resilience is still the fabric of many of our lives.

In a thesis discussing the resilience of non-binary survivors of GBV within personal relationships, Sanchez argues that, whilst studies indicate that non-binary survivors of GBV report housing and employment discrimination, emotional and mental abuse at the hands of those with whom they have personal relationships, this has not entered a system of trauma care which is still largely targeted to white cisgender, physically and mentally able women (Sanchez 2019). Cross-reference that with Elkins et al’s article discussing gender-responsive care with regards to the forms of GBV that male identified/identifying suffer, article which argues that male identified/identifying people survivors of GBV do not report it or have an aware consciousness that they have suffered some form of abuse, and thus the data gathered about GBV is flawed (Elkins et al 2019). The narratives that document and report, make statistics of GBV and trauma often lack the consideration of the systemic difficulties – in convention or in resources – with which non-binary-conforming survivors of GBV have to contend with when becoming aware of, understanding and coping with their trauma.

Facing this, Elkins et al argue for a trauma-informed and gender-responsive care that can exhaustively approach the forms of trauma and forms of GBV that survivors have – trauma that may be so ‘biologically embedded’ that it becomes basic survival skills (Elkins et al 2019). Sanchez refers to the PTSD of people who have suffered forms of GBV, and psychological, clinical care that needs to be theorised, trained and policised in response (Sanchez 2019). All the research gathered to some extent, called for similar structures: trauma-informed, gender-responsive care, and all the research gathered dates from the late 2010s (Sabri, Granger et al 2019, Lanham et al 2017, Elkins et al 2019, Sanchez 2019, Vawnet 2015). It is defining that these studies have occurred, and this change in medical policy is being petitioned for so broadly, but it is not enough. The terms trauma-informed and gender-responsive discuss care after the fact, of trauma care after forms of GBV have been enacted. It is necessary, but it is not enough to realise trauma-informed, gender-responsive care after and throughout the lifetime ramifications of GBV for people of all genders without implementing the social, cultural, economic, spatial, political structures that prevent all forms of GBV.

In the upcoming 16 Days of Activism, it is significant that women identified/identifying – as reported – are disproportionately affected by GBV in their cultures, personal and professional relationships…etc. However this neither takes away from nor does it falsely equivocate to the GBV that communities of any and all genders suffer – GBV towards and suffered by any gender, and the trauma generated by this, of any form, is intolerable.

Sources:

Equip Health Care, ‘Trauma- & Violence-Informed Care: Prioritizing Safety for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence’

ELKINS Jennifer, CRAWFORD Katherine, BRIGGS Harold E, ‘Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse: Becoming Gender-Responsive and Trauma-Informed’, Advances in Social Work vol.18 no.1, ??? 2017, pp.116-130

LANHAM Michele et al, ‘ ‘‘We’re Going to Leave You for Last, Because of How You Are’’: Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender-Based Violence in Healthcare, Education, and Police Encounters in Latin America and the Caribbean’, Violence and Gender vol.6 no.1, Mary Ann Liebert Inc 2019, pp.37-46

SABRI Bushra, GRANGER Douglas A, ‘Gender-based violence and trauma in marginalized populations of women: Role of biological embedding and toxic stress’, Healthcare Women Int vol.39 no.9, 2018, pp.1038-1055

SANCHEZ Meyerlyn Leticia, ‘The Resilience Experiences in Non-Binary Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault’, Ohio State University 2019

VAWNET, ‘Violence Against Trans and Non-Binary People’, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence 2015

Nyala Thompson Grunwald (she/her) is a Franco-Trinbagonian pannist and artivist. Currently a postgraduate student based in London, Nyala’s research thus far focuses on decoloniality and afrodiaspora in race, music, gender and culture.

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