It was supposed to be “just another GBV training session.”

Or, so I thought.

It was “just” one of more than 20 modules that formed part of a data collectors’ training session in preparation for conducting a Violence Against Children and Youth Survey in refugee settings.

I don’t say this to minimize the importance of gender-based violence, as it is, without question, a significant issue and one that I’ve spent much of the last dozen years addressing. I say this to reflect my honest surprise that a one-hour training session on Violence as a Health and Human Rights Issue (one of several modules related to gender-based violence delivered during the training) would be anything but uneventful—not only for the trainees, but also for myself as an individual who had facilitated such sessions seemingly “forever,” “without incident,” and for groups as diverse as researchers, health providers, the police, and local communities.

The training module aimed to raise trainees’ awareness of the gravity of gender-based violence, given its health implications and association with rights violations. A deep understanding of these issues was critical for ensuring that the impending data collection occurred with the utmost sensitivity and care.

The training was taking place in Uganda, convened by the Baobab Research Programme Consortium—a partnership devoted to including refugee contexts in surveys and interventions from which they have historically been excluded, due to perceptions that such inclusion would be too challenging. Over five years, Baobab is introducing well-regarded surveys into refugee contexts for the very first time. These are:

  • The Violence Against Children and Youth Survey—developed by experts from the US government and UN agencies that comprise the Together for Girls partnership
  • Abortion Incidence Complications Method—developed by the Guttmacher Institute
  • A longitudinal survey on unintended pregnancy—developed by the STEP UP program

In my typical busy fashion, I arrived in Kampala at night, taking a late flight to Entebbe so I could finish up other bits of work in the daytime before focusing on the Uganda training for the next few weeks. I looked over the gender-based violence training slides one more time to ensure there were no typos before I called it a night.

The next day, I delivered the presentation in an interactive fashion, doing my best to engage as meaningfully as possible with a large group of data collectors. I noted that they seemed sufficiently interested, enthusiastic, and enlightened by the information. At the end of the session, it was time for a tea break, and I considered my job done.

I was not prepared for what happened next. One of the participants walked up and sat next to me—to talk about something fieldwork-related, I presumed.

I was wrong.

She said, “I want you to know that I’ve attended training sessions on gender-based violence before, but this time, there was something different about it. You hit the nail on the head with every point you made. About the consequences that can affect a person throughout their lives. About how serious and unjust it is. About everything.”

“You were talking to me. You were talking about me. I’m almost 40 years old, and I’ve never told anyone this before.…” And she proceeded to disclose her early childhood experience of sexual violence at the hands of a trusted relative who ought to have protected her. She talked of the ways in which this experience continued to affect her decades after—although its effects had only dawned on her after participating in the training session.

At the sight of a tear rolling down her cheek, I snapped out of my state of shock and handed her a tissue.

My astonishment is rather embarrassing, in retrospect. After all, I rattle off the statistics all the time about how up to one billion children aged 2–17 worldwide are estimated to have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.

In my various training sessions on gender-based violence, I invariably mention that, given the sobering statistics, the unfortunate reality is that a large proportion of those in the room have likely had such an experience. Having a survivor come up to me to disclose her childhood experience therefore shouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary.

I thought about all the survivors over the years for whom my training sessions might have struck a chord, but who perhaps hadn’t felt ready or comfortable to disclose the experience, and I realized I could have done better by at least making support available during these sessions.

I told her how courageous she was, and how humbled I was that she would choose to share this with me. We talked about options for psychosocial support by a trained professional (which she had never received), and I was glad that she was amenable to seeking care. We set a date to ensure this happened.

I thanked her profusely for jolting me out of my state of “over-familiarity” with certain aspects of my work—and for reminding me of why I do it in the first place. I thanked her for teaching me a lesson I should have learned long before now, preoccupied as I am with psychosocial responses for survivors: the lesson that psychosocial support must become an integral part of my data collection training sessions.

As widespread as gender-based violence is, it no longer makes sense to restrict psychosocial support to conventional locations (e.g., health facilities, schools, or police stations). Support is needed in as many domains as we can integrate it into, including within research spaces. In these spaces, we can easily take it for granted that our focus is on getting the science right, forgetting that science is irrelevant without a focus on the people themselves. This includes not only participants in our research, but also those with whom we work to build the evidence base—and ourselves.

My tardiness in having this teachable moment doesn’t mean that other researchers have not been attuned to the needs I describe. The Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI), for instance, builds psychosocial support into its biennial conference (the SVRI Forum), ensuring trained counselors are on standby to support survivors who might be triggered by conference proceedings. Impressively, their conference abstract review process also attends to this issue, with counseling available for abstract reviewers that end up needing it in the course of the review process.

As a result of my own teachable moment, however, I would urge that we go even further, and begin to position psychosocial support within other aspects of research—from training sessions and data analysis processes, to webinars and beyond. This call goes beyond the gender-based violence field, extending to the broader field of sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as other fields of research.

I recall that on a previous research project on unintended pregnancy, the study’s qualitative interview transcripts posed severe trauma for a researcher involved in the analysis. Unbeknownst to the research team, she had recently lost a deeply desired pregnancy, and experienced debilitating trauma from reading other women’s narratives of unintended and unwanted pregnancies. In retrospect, psychosocial support should have been available and discussed upfront on this project.

The bottom line is that it is time for a much wider conversation on psychosocial support outside of intervention and fieldwork contexts alone, and for this sort of response to be given its rightful place in pre- and post-fieldwork research efforts.

This post is part of Rooted Reflections, a special series from the Baobab Research Programme Consortium documenting reflections, experiences, and learnings that are often left uncaptured by researchers in their implementation of research studies, and by the peer-reviewed literature. 

Read all posts in Rooted Reflections.