Caring for the Carers: Support Systems for GBV Fieldworkers
The importance of “self-care” has been recognised for many years in social work and women’s rights organisations in the Global North. It has also recently gained traction in feminist movements across the world. Despite this, the support needs of Southern gender-based violence (GBV) fieldworkers are widely disregarded in policy and practice, even as—mainly Northern—aid funding increases for GBV work worldwide.
This poses particular challenges in Global South contexts with higher prevalence of GBV, where aid donors, networks and organisations often only see fieldworkers as providing support to beneficiaries. Ask yourself: when was the last time you saw fieldworkers’ wellbeing prioritised in a GBV intervention budget? Have you ever seen an organisational framework that acknowledges frontline workers are often also GBV survivors themselves?
For many, the answer may be ‘never’.
The silence around GBV fieldworkers’ needs and experiences is harmful for interventions, beneficiaries and feminist values. It must be urgently and comprehensively addressed.
Before we can develop and implement effective support for people working on the frontlines of GBV, we need to explore what ‘support’ means to the fieldworkers. What needs for, and experiences of, support do GBV fieldworkers have? How does support develop as a process of engaging with our colleagues, friends, family and communities?
Through our own experiences and exchanges with GBV fieldworkers in East Africa, South America and beyond, we can see that there are many complex and interwoven support dynamics in GBV interventions. These include a range of supportive behaviours, including group and individual therapy, peer mentoring, verbal encouragement, professional training, support to balance workload and paid annual leave. Support also occurs between local and global stakeholders, such as other fieldworkers, international donors and partners, government service providers, beneficiaries and the local community.
This does not mean that stakeholder relationships are always positive and supportive. Our colleagues often experience resistance, if not outright violence, from police officers who oppose the feminist mission of their GBV interventions. Support from international donors is also complex. Fieldworkers are reliant on financial support and networking guidance from donors and multilateral organisations, but high competition for grants and extensive paperwork can add to the already significant pressures of GBV fieldwork.
On the other hand, supportive working conditions can be self-perpetuating: that is, they can help generate even more supportive work relationships and systems into the future. GBV fieldworkers with effective safeguarding mechanisms, like confidential on-site therapy and clear organisational protocol for when staff experience violence or threats of violence, are often better able to support themselves and colleagues, and advocate for their right to professional and personal support.
Why support fieldworkers?
In our view, there are a number of strong reasons why GBV organisations, networks and donors need to urgently address the overlooked issue of support for fieldworkers.
The first, and arguably most obvious, reason centres on professional productivity. Extensive research into support and safeguarding in the Global North shows that fieldworkers who feel supported are better able to deliver programme activities and services to a higher quality. Supported fieldworkers sustain programmes and organisational missions for longer. Higher quality and more sustained GBV interventions are, of course, more likely to fulfil their primary aim of serving beneficiaries and reducing or ending GBV in communities.
The second reason is more fundamental to the lived experiences and rights of GBV fieldworkers. Many fieldworkers have very similar needs and vulnerabilities to their beneficiaries: Flone Initiative’s analysis shows that around two thirds of the Kenyan GBV intervention staff interviewed have experienced sexual violence, compared to only 6% of Kenyan men and 14% of Kenyan women overall. Research from the UK also suggests similar trends.
These experiences are a source of motivation, empathy and strength for fieldworkers, but they also mean that there is a higher likelihood of experiencing psychological distress, flashbacks, anxiety and other PTSD-like symptoms when working with cases that remind them of their own experiences. Enabling fieldworkers to feel and do their best requires careful consideration from their organisations, donors and partners. After all, if GBV fieldworkers have similar experiences of violence to their beneficiaries, they have a similar right to protection and support.
This brings us to the third major reason for GBV fieldworker support: feminist solidarity. Current understandings of GBV see it as a holistic system of physical, sexual, psychological, political and socioeconomic violence that happens at individual, collective and international levels. Women—particularly those from marginalised cultures, ethnicities and classes in the Global South— have supported themselves and their communities as a way of resisting this violent oppression.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Fieldworkers are often the staff members who are most vulnerable to community violence, whilst also being some of the lowest paid and most precariously employed people in the sector. The feminist mission of GBV interventions worldwide calls us to ensure they are fully supported: as professionals, as colleagues and as humans.
Towards a supportive sector
Effective support for fieldworkers needs to be multifaceted, with close and respectful collaboration from global networks, organisations implementing GBV interventions and fieldworkers themselves.
Our colleagues across Kenya often emphasise the need for integrated organisational policies that offer both psychosocial and financial support. But for this to become a reality, we require significant investment from global communities, especially donor organisations, who would need to allocate sufficient funds and research to improving support practices.
When designing GBV interventions, it is important that organisations maintain long-term, strong and open channels of communication between management and fieldworkers about their ongoing support needs. This could be through direct, face-to-face meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes or online surveys, or a mixture of tools. Fieldworkers should also be encouraged to recognise and be respectful to their own needs and the needs of their colleagues. These are not a sign of weakness or incapacity; they show that we are empathetic and passionate in the face of violence.
Perhaps most importantly, international donors and networks must make an active commitment to understanding the long-term support needs of GBV fieldworkers in their partner organisations in the Global South. Staff safeguarding concerns can be addressed, for example, by dedicating extra funds towards fieldworkers’ health insurance, developing impact evaluations that are sensitive to fieldworkers’ support needs or providing cross-stakeholder mentoring.
Ultimately, it is vital that the sector adopts a more holistic approach to supporting frontline GBV workers. As our research shows, fieldworkers often share many of the same experiences, vulnerabilities and needs as their beneficiaries. These lived realities cannot be dismissed as less important.
About the Authors
Naomi Mwaura is the founder of Flone Initiative, an organisation working to create a safe and professional public transport industry in Kenya. She was one of the lead organisers of the MyDressMyChoice campaign that saw thousands of women protest gender based violence in the Kenyan public transport. She has been involved in the development of the Cairo Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Gender plan and study on expanding access to cycling for women in Cairo. As part of Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, Naomi completed a civic leadership fellowship at Tulane University, USA. She was named “BBC 100 Inspirational and Influential Women” 2017 and featured in Forbes Women, BBC and Aljazeera. She is among the winners of the 2018 Ashoka Challenging Norms, Powering Economies Challenge. You can find her on Twitter
Sarah Dickins has worked with various different youth and women’s rights organisations and movements across Europe, East Africa and South America since 2015. She recently completed an MA Gender, Violence and Conflict from the University of Sussex, and now works in organisational change for the children’s and gender equality INGO Plan International. She previously collaborated with Naomi Mwaura and Flone Initiative as a Programmes Consultant, focusing particularly on designing and measuring impactful projects against GBV in public transport and spaces across Kenya. Sarah is passionate about intersectional, collaborative and community-led feminist justice, and aspires to develop these principles throughout her personal-professional life. She welcomes any feedback on this blog via Twitter.
- Naomi Mwaura
- Sarah Dickins