As 2016 draws to an end, and as we recently celebrated the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we are reminded that gender-based violence is sadly still prevalent across almost all societies around the world. Tragically, in fragile contexts such as within displaced communities, it is usually greatly accentuated. Understanding the complexity of gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts is a first step towards solving the problem. We, therefore, sat down with Noor Tlass, a psychologist with more than four-years of experience in gender-based violence and one of our supervisors in RET working with vulnerable women in Southeastern Turkey.
Noor, we all seem to use the term gender-based violence incessantly and oftentimes without giving it proper attention, what is the most common misconception you encounter?
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a term that is constantly being “updated”. We mainly need to understand that GBV is not necessarily linked to the scenarios that first come to mind. For example, sexual abuse is just one type of GBV.
GBV can be committed by anyone, the father, the mother, the care provider, the humanitarian worker. Therefore, the first thing we have to consider is to put effort in explaining the content of this term to the communities and to our participants.
Yes, when talking with our colleagues and partners around the world, I feel that the outlines of the survivors’ stories can differ vastly depending on geography, types of communities and the individuals themselves. But are there any significant challenges that stay the same?
First and foremost, the culture of stigma… People are so often afraid and almost always ashamed of sharing the violence that they have witnessed or have been exposed to.
We, at RET, have good relationships with the Government of Turkey and other NGOs, as well as with Syrian associations; we do not have any problems concerning collaboration and support. Our main problem is to find the way to lead our participants to an understanding. Some witness violence and they think that it is normal. For example, some people think it is okay for the husband to abuse his wife. They do not really understand their rights as human beings. That is why we are focusing on awareness-raising sessions, psychological education sessions and legal education sessions for people to become aware of the rights they hold. Gender-based violence is a heavy topic and it often conjures concepts such as pride or honour when discussed. That is why we always need to invest the necessary time to explain.
Do you think this particular understanding of rights can change per region?
Yes, in my view, attitudes tend to change according to the environment in which people were brought up. Some people will, for example, hide the stories of violence they were made a part of, while in some other region or community, they do not feel so ashamed to share their stories. It is not forbidden. What is challenging is that the women often regard themselves as a problem and that is not true or valid.
Do you deliver GBV training to men, as well? What is their attitude towards this issue?
Yes, just like amongst our RET staff, we have beneficiaries from both sexes. Men really are trying to develop empathy for this topic. They generally really try to understand and support women’s human rights. The men we encounter and work with are collaborative and supporting. Contrary as to what some may think, we did not face problems with men in understanding GBV, what to do or how to identify it.
In order for us to have a clearer view, could you briefly explain how the GBV programme you work on operates? How do we identify and reach people and what services have to be provided?
Participants are either identified through outreach activities, referred to us by external services such as other NGOs, local authorities and even health institutions. They may also come to us on their own initiative.
Then, the genuine process begins. At this stage, obtaining the participant’s informed consent before registering her is extremely important. This is to ensure that her choice to join the programme is free and voluntary. Without consent, we cannot do anything and this consent must be renewed at every step of the process.
Once in the system, the young girls have access to a space where they feel physically and emotionally safe where a range of activities are proposed to help them gain power over their lives, make friends, develop new skills and help them understand the violence they have been exposed to and its consequences. In these spaces they are also informed of the help and resources that are already available in their environment, either at RET’s centres or externally. The empowerment activities encompass elements such as language education; awareness-raising sessions on a series of issues including their legal rights as children, women, and refugees; life skills sessions and psychosocial structured activities. During these activities, we engage the participants with different games to encourage them to speak out. The response activities include individual counselling and emotional support groups. The emotional support groups are where young girls who are survivors of violence are grouped according to their age and problems. These groups are closed. They use specific activities and techniques, such as handicraft and psychodrama, as a vehicle for achieving psychological and social change. These groups help girls share experiences, develop a social support network, strengthen their problem solving skills and positive coping mechanisms, and improve their self-esteem and self-confidence. During the groups, the presence of interpreters allows each woman to express herself in her mother tongue, facilitating participation and integration. As the internal support mechanism takes place, girls can also be referred, according to their specific needs, to external organisations and professionals, such as local authorities, specialised NGOs, and other partners.
This is the outline of the system you had presented at the UN Day of the Girl Child Conference in Istanbul in October. At this event you also talked about the practices used to reach out and encourage participants, could you tell us a little about this here?
Well, owing to this culture of stigma, which regularly prevents survivors from speaking out, we, at RET, organise regular activities, such as lunches, that bring women together and establish bridges between cultures. These activities create open spaces for the survivors to connect with our team. These gatherings allow trust to be built, which is an essential element in the decision of the women to enter the programme. After these activities and the first sessions they start to feel comfortable and get a better idea of the safety offered by the centres where they are free to express themselves. This way the women who might have had hesitations are reassured and do not lose the opportunity to benefit from our programme.
What else would you say allows a GBV programme to be successful?
I might say, in addition to other elements, that the individualised approach we treasure makes a difference. Our RET Programme Coordinators identify and take into account the specific needs of each and every case. I can say that we go the extra mile to ensure that each individual participant gets the most out of our services. From employing female drivers to put participants at ease, to the specific support provided to pregnant women and women with children, we try to think of all the concrete preoccupations these women have. Most importantly, we guarantee their anonymity and the confidentiality of the information entrusted to us. This is achieved, among other measures, through a coding system we specifically designed to ensure no one, other than the psychosocial counsellor in charge of the case, can have access to their files. At RET, we devote special attention to individual comfort, respect, security, and confidentiality.
What would you like to improve or add to the system?
Our RET system is not static. It improves case-by-case, group-by-group, step-by-step, as the beneficiaries’ experiences and opinions are taken into account. Evaluating each session and collecting suggestions to improve the weak points is key. Evaluations also engage the staff who work in the GBV department. That is why we do not say we need to improve this or that part, as we are already in the process. In reality it is not me, but the system we put in place, which informs us on the improvements we should make.
How about the challenges you run into when recruiting? Does a GBV specialist have to be a trained psychologist?
Yes this is a very valid point – the staff needs to have experience. They need to have expert knowledge and relevant experience, because our survivors suffer from deep traumas. They need professional support. Therefore, our staff mainly consists of psychologists and social workers. We also need lawyers to refer the cases to the government institutions, as well.
Our aim is to ensure solid training on the services we provide. We care for our staff and the ways they can protect themselves from being affected by the stories they hear.
Yes, I imagine that working in this field must be emotionally taxing, so do you use programmes and methods to assist the staff psychologically?
We are all human and we all have emotions. We do implement and advise self-care activities for the staff to be able to get insights into their own emotions. When we see that their behaviours demonstrate something abnormal, let us say anger, we guide them to apply self-care. We work closely with the staff who are involved with the survivors may they be psychosocial counsellors or case workers.
Lastly, I know that before working in Southeastern Turkey you were very active in Syria and in particularly unstable areas, what is the difference between working in zones of conflict and working in a safe zone?
First, here, I myself am safe. Across the border, I was working under duress every day and never knew if I could go home or not. In zones of conflict, you may need to stop the sessions for security, for the security of the staff, as well as the security of the participants. In some cases you may need to stop because the families of the participants may not want them to talk to you. In safer zones, the presence of a government, as well as people who work at the hospital, the presence of police, the law, all this makes a huge difference. You know that these institutions apply human rights and they respect the confidentiality of the survivors.
Before wishing you the best in your efforts, do you have any concluding remarks?
I hope, through the combined efforts of everyone working on GBV, that the world around us will be better able to understand that the women we support are “survivors”, not victims. They have tremendous strength and are really able to face problems, to stay alive and to fight in order to live in better conditions. This is perhaps the most important fact we all have to keep in mind.