The Under-Studied Impact of Gender-Based Violence and Brain Injury in Marginalized Communities
Categories: ACBIS Insider
Nneka MacGregor, LL.B., Executive Director, WomenatthecentrE
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States, and so it is fitting that my article focuses on gender-based violence (GBV) and brain injury, but I want to share the Canadian context with you.
My organisation, the Women’s Centre for Social Justice, better known as WomenatthecentrE1, is a unique non-profit because it is the first one incorporated explicitly by and for women, trans, and gender-diverse survivors of all forms of GBV. With more than 7,000 members globally, we operate from a place that recognises survivors as the experts in the sector, using our lived experience and the lessons learned from navigating multiple systems to develop and engage in community-based participatory research, law and policy reform, trauma-healing programmes, public education, awareness-raising, and peer support.
In this article, I will shine a spotlight on the layered challenges that comes with doing this work, of breaking down silos that continue to exist between the brain injury world and the GBV sector, in particular how both continue to disadvantage, fail, and erase certain minoritized communities of survivors – namely Black and Indigenous women, girls, 2-Spirit, gender-diverse, and trans (BI-WG2SGDT) people in Canada.
Every research project we undertake has to meet three foundational criteria:
- Is it what survivors have identified as an important issue to explore?
- Is it developed and led by survivors?
- Will it benefit survivors and positively advance them on their healing journey, or what we call ‘The Healing Continuum’?
Answering these questions by embedding intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) throughout and by honouring the First Nations principles of Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP2) ensures that we do not stray from highlighting the disproportionate impacts of GBV, both systemic and inter-personal, on BI-WG2SGDT communities.
The main challenge we encounter in the Canadian context is the appalling lack of research and consequentially a lack of disaggregated data, by race for these populations, research that documents the prevalence and or health/related impacts on them. As we all know, without good research, there will be no good data, and without good data, there will be no policies or programmes developed to address issues affecting communities. We are therefore left with a dearth of information on the lived experiences of BI-WG2SGDT survivors, in either the GBV or the brain injury world, much less, their experiences at the intersection of GVB-resultant brain injuries.
Partnering with other researchers like Dr. Angela Colantonio and her team at the University of Toronto’s Acquired Brain Injury Research Lab 3, we have been intentional in our practice, by focusing on those who have been systemically, systematically, and deliberately de-centred, communities facing multiple marginalisation resulting from structural inequities, including anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism that targets BI-WG2SGDT survivors. In all our research with survivors, whether of human and sex trafficking, of intimate partner violence, of gender-based sexual violence, or those navigating family and criminal courts, we have made it a routine practice to include questions on whether they experienced any physical violence, such as hits and kicks to the head, face, and neck, including strangulation.
Results thus far are really disheartening, in that an overwhelming majority of survivors surveyed indicated that they had experienced not one, but “too many” incidents where they had been strangled, kicked in the head, or sustained a blow to the head with a hard object, including fists and baseball bats. While this has devastating, life-long impacts on all survivors, we understand the added complexities for those who identify as Black or Indigenous, due to the ongoing generational legacy of trauma that colonisation, white supremacy, and misogyny has placed on us. The only article to identify knowledge and service gaps amongst Indigenous women survivors of intimate partner violence-induced traumatic brain injuries was completed by the research team I mentioned earlier (Haag, 2019), providing further validation for the call for more to be done for those with the most urgent and unmet needs.
For example, we know that Indigenous women, girls, and 2-Spirit people are at significantly higher risk of violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts. While they make up only 4 percent of the total Canadian population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey4, Indigenous women, girls, and 2-Spirit people are far more likely to experience various forms of GBV, with more than six in 10 (63 percent) having been physically or sexually assaulted at some point since the age of 15, compared with more than four in 10 non-Indigenous women (45 percent) (StatsCan 2022).
Trying to drill down for a better understanding of how many of those are likely living with undiagnosed GBV-induced brain injuries requires dedicated funding and a commitment from all levels of government. The need is urgent, as survivors of this double pandemic will continue to struggle to meet their basic needs, and if the sectors continue on their siloed paths, most frontline staff will remain completely unaware of the twinned nature of violence people coming to them for support are dealing with.
When it comes to Black women, girls, gender-diverse, and trans survivors, I can go as far as saying that there is no data that speaks to our experiences of GBV and/or brain injuries. However, WomenatthecentrE is in the process of rectifying that, with an initiative funded by the federal Department for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE). Advancing Gender Equity for Black Women, Girls, Gender-Diverse and Trans (B-WGGDT) Survivors in Canada is a five-year project, the first of its kind in any jurisdiction that is being led by and for us, and will develop a new policy framework – The Amourgynoir Framework (MacGregor, 2019)5, specifically to disrupt anti-Black gender-based violence in policy and programme development across government, institutions, sectors and in communities. This ground-breaking work will also gather data from B-WGGDT survivors, activists, and academics on a range of issues, including their experiences of GBV-induced brain injuries, and includes the creation of a Knowledge Hub to house emerging research on this under-served population in Canada.
With funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, we are working to develop a core programme with a particular focus on survivors with GBV-inflicted brain injuries from those minoritized and marginalised communities. The Cross-Sectoral Solutions: Strengthening Community Capacity to Address the ‘Parallel Pandemic’ of Gender-Based Violence-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Through a Survivor-Led Support Intervention is an innovative approach that has brought together stakeholders from various disciplines, together with an intersectional group of survivors – the WomenatthecentrE Survivors Expert Collective (WE SEC). WE SEC provides leadership and direction to the project, as an accountability committee, asking critical questions and offering recommendations for equity, diversity, and inclusion. They have continuously named and challenged the violent dismissal, erasure, and silencing they experience in “intended” “support”-based settings, such as healthcare, therapy, the child welfare system, and the legal system. We have seen how survivors who are racialized, Black, and Indigenous are specifically harmed by the ongoing systemic, community, and interpersonal impacts of Canada’s colonization, imperialism, xenophobia, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ableism, and white male supremacy.
The programme developed from this participatory, community-based work will be piloted in four communities across Canada, including the programme co-created with Indigenous communities through our partnership with Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. We are already seeing transformative impacts from doing the work this way.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Haag, H., Biscardi, M., Smith, N., MacGregor, N., & Colantonio, A. (2019). Traumatic brain injury and intimate partner violence: Addressing knowledge and service gaps among indigenous populations in Canada. Brain Impairment, 20 (2), 197-210. doi:10.1017/Brlmp.2019.16
Statistics Canada (2022). Violent victimization and perceptions of safety among First Nations, Métis and Inuit women and among women living in remote areas of Canada Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220426/dq220426b-eng.htm