“The (women) group’s goal is for them to have a safe and trustworthy space where they feel secure and united with other women who have lived similar stories. There, they can meet, work on their grief, receive support …”
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a worldwide phenomenon. In Latin America and the Caribbean it is expressed in different ways: through forced marriage at an early age, exclusion of women in areas of influence and decision making, psychological, physical and sexual violence. In some settings, GBV is validated culturally and socially normalized. It is therefore difficult to perceive it as such, but the truth is that if you look closely you may find that many women feel exposed and at risk in their daily lives.
In situations of vulnerability, such as after a forced displacement, the risks multiply. In these situations the risks of GBV increase, as evidence shows that masculinities and femininities are generally heightened during a crisis. Also, when general violence in communities rises, there is a noted increase in gender-based violence.
By working with support groups in the Latin American and Caribbean region, RET hasbeen providing care to survivors and preventing GBV. The aim is to create safe spaces in which women at risk of GBV, or survivors of GBV, can be greeted and heard, without being judged and attacked because of their experiences.
These support groups, led by specialists, generate a process of recovery of confidence and self-esteem, while creating awareness of one’s abilities to face risks and adversity. They are designed to allow the survivor to heal personally, while gaining the understanding that they are not the only ones facing violence. Women learn that many others have to confront GBV, that what happens to them is in no way acceptable and that together they are stronger.
This is expressed by Yosmailin Guerrero, a psychologist at RET in Costa Rica as: “the group’s goal is for them to have a safe and trustworthy space where they feel secure and united with other women who have lived similar stories. There they can meet, work on their grief, receive support…”
From Personal Grief to Collective Wellbeing
In some cases, women who have had to confront GBV tend to become isolated; they feel a certain shame about what they have experienced. Therefore, support groups facilitate the “sharing of experience, in order for them to realize that they are not alone, that there are others who have had similar experiences and who can provide support. We see how within a group they become friends, they understand each other and share their experiences”, says Elisa Roca, RET psychologist in Ecuador.
In a women’s support group one learns fast and each participant gets stronger. These are social mechanisms RET relies on to provide greater personal security to participants, allowing them to share their stories, but also to create a new interpretation of their present situation and therefore perceive new ways forward. Our aim is to strengthen and develop resilience in each of the participants, both to leave behind the violent experience, as well as to deal with and prevent future risks. Creating social ties between women is an efficient and sustainable way to fight against GVB.
Guerrero adds that “part of the work we do is talk about the grief, the problems experienced, the shames that we share, what we leave behind when fleeing our country; this is very important to address. But we then have to move from there and not keep repeating the same story because it risks increasing the harm already done. So, this is how it happened in the group, they decided to do something different, they began to grow, to value what they have today, to build a new history and to value their knowledge.”
In order for women’s groups to function, our approach also integrates individual attention as a preparation to group work. As we just saw, groups prompt resilience among women, individual support, on the other hand, works deeply on the trauma and the psychological, as well as emotional effects resulting from the event or situation of violence.
This articulation between individual support and group support is well explained by Roca, our psychologist in Ecuador: “some of them, when moving from the individual therapy to the group process, built up more courage, felt more support; this process helped them to integrate, to feel accompanied and strong.”
The result of this process is women who have a high capacity to produce changes in their lives, in their families, as well as to positively influence their environments. The initial pain generates the possibility of a broader understanding of the manifestations of violence and discrimination, with a greater capacity to offer responses in order to move communities towards respect and wellbeing. It is extremely important to understand this dynamic, since GBV is the responsibility of all sectors and members of society.
Finally: Being Heard
There are many stories and cases that we can consider as emblematic of women who have been overcoming situations of violence and that today are referents in their groups and leaders in their communities.
This is, for example, the case of Eulalia*, who survived 11 years of violence with her ex-partner. During the last years of her experience, she had nightmares every night. She worried about the paralysis in which she had fallen and that had caused her to be unable to leave. She felt limited and uneasy. In her individual process she began to understand what was going on, she faced her deepest fears and moved on to find a way out. She discovered that it was not only a question of moving away from the one who hurt her, but of rebuilding herself, finding her true motivation to change her life and embark on a path of self-care and of discovery of her abilities. After a year of work, Eulalia has become today a leader within the women’s group, a reference for other women in the community. She has resumed her studies and is saving to go to university. She accomplished all this while taking care of her children and with a strong commitment to provide support to other women. She is now and example and a voice heard within the group and her community.
The story of Antonia* is also a wonderful example of what is being achieved in the women’s groups. In her life, there have been very few moments in which she has not experienced violence in her environment or directly towards her, to such an extent that it was almost impossible to distinguish between violent and nonviolent treatment. For her, violence became normal and an everyday thing. Because of violence she was forced to leave her country and seek refuge in a new territory, violence had also diminished her voice, since during most of the work process she remained silent. But Antonia finally decided to speak, she gathered the necessary courage to share her story and her biggest surprise was to find herself in an environment in which she was neither judged nor victimized. Her story became an important event and was welcomed by the group as part of the healing process they all shared. Antonia then expressed what they may have all felt: “it is the first time in my life that I share my story and someone listens to me.”
* Her real name has been changed to guarantee her anonymity.