by Ann Mitchell
Meeting with a group of women who had encountered physical and sexual abuse from early childhood was rather daunting. This was due to uncertainty as to how they would react to me as a researcher engaging them in collaborative research. That first meeting was important for outlining the rationale of the project together with a list of sessions that would be conducted over a two-week period. I emphasised the collaborative nature of the approach being adopted to ensure the women felt fully involved in the research process. As it promotes self- discovery, Participatory Action Research (PAR) has been adopted as the intervention methodology for the ARCLIGHT project. Researchers are encouraged to research alongside the participants as co researchers driving the research process rather than attempting to impose predetermined actions or activities. It meant as a team we needed to be sensitive to the needs of the women and to be flexible with the approach as they gave voice to the stories and other experiences that they wanted to share.
The focus of the project was to undertake and develop co-production of community mental health resilience resources with three case study communities: the Yupukari, an indigenous community in the interior; Enmore, a rural coastal community that is primarily Indian with other ethnic groups now residing there and a community refuge for abused women.
This reflective account aims to capture positive examples of resilience for the urban coastal community refuge. This group of women faced extreme levels of domestic abuse and lived in a refuge. Some members had recently left to embark on a new chapter in their lives and were now living in their own home environment, with their children, in communities away from the refuge. I appreciated that they were all willing to participate in the sessions and share their experiences with each other.
See two drawings from the women below that depict abuse.
I felt humbled, as well as uncomfortable, as I listened to the content of their stories. I realised that the women had faced intolerable situations which they felt they had had no control over. They felt powerless and ill equipped to change things in their lives. The refuge acted as a place of safety for them as they all expressed that it was a supportive and safe community environment for women who experienced violent and aggressive situations in their home lives. Whilst they recognised it was a transitory one, they knew that they could return if similar issues arose. They accepted the need to return to their own respective communities elsewhere. However, staying in the refuge enabled them to build relationships and friendships as they sought new ways of caring for themselves and their children. They spoke fondly about the refuge community; the support provided by the managers, the counsellors and being given a place to live when they had nowhere else to go.
On reflection they showed resilience which was not couched in those words but more about coping with hardships, struggles, problems, adversity. They showed their hidden strengths as they used craft items to illustrate their feelings, told stories openly about their experiences of abuse, their wishes and hopes during the sessions. I was totally amazed at the pictures drawn by all of them, but particularly two women who experienced problems with reading and writing.
An example of a drawing is shown below.
Surprisingly they wanted to share their stories with fellow women experiencing similar issues associated with violence as they expressed graphic details of the violence and abuse they had encountered. I thought they might not have agreed to upload their pictures, stories and other images onto the MAZI zone being used as a learning tool and to share information with others. We explained the purpose of the MAZI zone which is based on a digital device whereby users can communicate and share information with others without connecting to the internet. It is therefore useful where an internet connection is non-existent or inadequate as can occur in Guyana. They were all in agreement in using this platform as long as their personal information and identity remain anonymous. We agreed to them using the names of fruits eaten in Guyana as pseudonyms.
Together we produced resources that reflected the women taking control of their lives by making decisions to improve their situation in terms of seeking employment and accommodation. I was surprised to see how much the sessions meant to them and the value they placed on being involved in the groups. They all commented on that they felt they had been listened to, developed knowledge about the ‘r’ word that stood for resilience and skills they were totally unaware of. Learning had taken place which was slowly impacting on their change of behavior. They became more articulate as they voiced their opinions about domestic violence and started to make subtle changes to their current lives by planning to find jobs, accommodation and forging new relationships with family members. The group decided to call themselves ‘Flavours of Hope’ and to have T shirts printed to advertise the effects of domestic violence.
I believe we provided a culturally supportive environment that empowered the women to consider the many challenges that they will face as they plan to provide a caring and nurturing home for them and their children. Listening to stories of abuse on many levels and the experiences of hardship and poverty is difficult especially when you consider that your own home environment and a way of life is a direct contrast. Yet these women showed zest, determination and courage to change their lives. They wanted to champion the cause for more workshops about domestic violence across Guyana.
Examples of the resources produced by the women
Finally, an example of a Christmas card produced by one participant who made cards to raise funds to care for the family. She developed this skill as part of the research study .