DAY THIRTEEN: Teaching sexual and gender-based violence: learning environments and pedagogic dilemmas

What is a safe learning environment and how do we create them? Tereza Valny explores the ethical dilemmas and strategies when teaching about sexual and gender based violence in the classroom.

Empty classroom

Tereza Valny

Content note: the following post contains references to sexual and gender-based violence

Featured image: “A Classroom” by DaveFayram is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sexual and gender-based violence as unavoidable topics

The attention given to the systematic use of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against civilians and unarmed combatants during times of war and genocide has increased since the 1990s.[1] What has become clear in the last few decades, beginning with close analyses of the case studies of Rwanda and Bosnia, is that SGBV was and is a primary tool of genocide. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are an intrinsic part of dehumanisation and are clear attempts to interfere with the continuity of life in both physical and psychological ways. SGBV has always been a part of armed conflict and, although it tends to disproportionately affect women and girls, the use of sexual violence is so embedded in acts of mass atrocity that it impacts everyone, including men, boys and individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

As a historian who teaches extensively on the topic of genocide, my courses inevitably examine sexual violence. In addition to the aforementioned Rwanda and Bosnia, the case studies I cover include: the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada; the use of SGBV in a displacement context in Darfur and with regard to the Rohingya; and the legacies of silence surrounding SGBV after the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian genocide.[2] But covering these case studies with sexual violence as an intrinsic component creates a space for anxiety, tension and in some instances, distress. So what can we do as instructors to face these inevitable dilemmas that arise from teaching material which has the potential to traumatise and re-traumatise?

Pedagogic dilemmas

Sexual violence is an inescapable reality and it does affect our students. The overall statistics suggest there is a chance that at least 25% of the women in our classrooms have faced some form of SGBV, with transgender assault rates being even higher.[3] Sexual violence against men and boys has been harder to quantify due to under-reporting, but there are many estimates in place both globally and nationally. Therefore, as teachers in a university context, there is a probability of having a victim of SGBV in the classroom. And I do believe that I am ethically obliged to think about anticipating the needs of students affected by these dynamics.

‘Anticipating needs’ can mean different things, but a solid first step is justification. Is the content essential for a deeper historical understanding of the subject? Given how profoundly embedded SGBV is in the history of genocide and mass atrocity, the answer is straightforward. However, this does not mean that students will be unaffected by the material even after an explanation and a content note is given. This potential effectof learning about SGBV has a range of forms, including re-traumatisation.

Trauma, re-traumatisation, and vicarious trauma  

Many victims of sexual violence experience what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] If we consider that some of our students are affected by past trauma then we should also think about the relationship between the examples of SGBV covered in class and how that might interact with their own experiences. In particular, for a victim of sexual violence, this exposure can lead to re-traumatisation (or re-experiencing, a part of PTSD). More generally, students being exposed to traumatic content can experience vicarious trauma.[5] Not everything can be accounted for, and spontaneity of reaction to SGBV material does happen, but generating an atmosphere where a tense situation can be addressed effectively is part of a strategy that can be helpful in the classroom and mainly helpful to those affected by the content. These strategies are all part of creating a safe learning environment

Creating a safe learning environment

If the content linked to sexual violence is deemed essential (as is the case with the history of genocide), then the following steps can help to facilitate a safer learning environment: content notes addressing the material’s links to SGBV; thinking about how to react to unplanned disclosure in advance; making sure rape culture is not being (even inadvertently) reinforced by the lesson plans and discussions; having a way ‘out’ for students who do not want to participate (which does not spotlight their experience); and being honest about the material covered from the start while making it clear to students why certain topics have to be covered.[6] These steps matter; in the case of victims, negative social reactions can cause re-traumatisation. If a system is in place to manage situations such as this, then some of this potential damage can be mitigated. This can also include a follow-up, in confidence and at the victim’s discretion, which lets them know what their options are once they have disclosed.[7]

These are just some of the steps that can be taken. As instructors who have made a choice to teach about SGBV, these are steps we must take.

Author’s Bio

Tereza Valny has been a teaching fellow in modern history at the University of Edinburgh since 2017. Tereza’s main current focus of research within genocide studies includes representations of trauma in various mediums. She has recently given a series of talks about landscape, violence, memory and trauma, in relation to post-genocidal spaces. Tereza also teaches several undergraduate and postgraduate courses which focus on witnessing, testimony, trauma and reconciliation related to genocidal events. Part of her recent related activities included a co-running a teaching circle in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology (at the University of Edinburgh) about ‘teaching sexual violence’ as well as organising a seminar on representations of toxic masculinity.


Footnotes

[1] I am using a comprehensive definition of sexual and gender-based violence rooted in international law (namely, the Rome Statute of 1998), because the definition covers the ‘widespread and systematic acts of SGBV as an act of genocide, a war crime and a crime against humanity’: Davies, Sara E. and True, Jacqui (2015). ‘Reframing conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence: Bringing gender analysis back in’, Security Dialogue, 46(6), 495-512, p. 495. An additional breakdown of the term SGBV, taking the definition out of the parameters of armed conflict, is provided by the Médecins sans frontières (MSF), but please note that it includes images as well as graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

[2] By ‘legacies of silence’ I am referring to a lack of survivor testimony, documentation and understanding of the role of SGBV within these genocides partly due to non-existent frameworks for survivors and witnesses.

[3] There is a range of statistical information available where you can read up on global rates and estimates, including: the ONS report for England and Wales; data on violence against women and girls from the UN Women’s report; statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (US-based); the WHO report from 2017; and because I am based in Edinburgh the Scottish government’s latest data compilation for sexual crimes recorded by the police (this does not delineate GBV).

[4] PTSD as a concept has its limits in terms of the centring of the individual in their own healing process, and what this implies (an assumption of resources). However, the term also generates an understanding of what happens to victims of trauma, therefore I have used it in this blog.

[5] There is extensive literature on these concepts, particularly in the field of psychology and social work. I have included a few of these texts: for example: Branson, D. C. (2019). ‘Vicarious trauma, themes in research, and terminology: A review of literature’, Traumatology, 25(1), 2-10; Hernandez-Wolfe, Pilar, et al (2014). ‘Vicarious Resilience, Vicarious Trauma, and Awareness of Equity in Trauma Work’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 55(2), 153-172; Ullmann, Sarah E. et al (2007). ‘Psychosocial correlates of PTSD symptom severity in sexual assault survivors’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(5), 821-831; Michalopoulos, Lynn M. & Aparicio, Elizabeth, (2012). ‘Vicarious Trauma in Social Workers: The Role of Trauma History, Social Support, and Years of Experience’, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 21(6), 646-664; and Finklestein, Michal, et al (2015). ‘Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Vicarious Trauma in Mental Health Professionals’, Health & Social Work, 40(2), 25-31. There are many other informative studies and a vast body of literature on this topic, but I have found these articles to present helpful frameworks for thinking about my own lesson planning.

[6] This is not a comprehensive list of strategies and mechanisms (further guidance is outlined here in the Rosey Project, part of Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis). Some of the strategies that I have been consulting were created with the idea of public disclosure in mind, including sensitivities to different gender identities as well as students who face a range of social barriers in relation to disclosure. The point of consensus of this varied literature is to acknowledge the disclosure and not to ignore or ‘brush it off’. Simply being aware of these mechanisms means preparedness, and by extension mitigating potential re-traumatisation. A great article that address types of disclosure in an academic setting and makes suggestions for responses is: Branch, Kathryn A. et al (2011). ‘Professors’ Experiences with Student Disclosures of Sexual Assault and Intimate Partner Violence: How “Helping” Students can Inform Teaching Practices’, Feminist Criminology, 61(1), 54-75.

[7] This obviously varies institutionally; and you may have suggestions that go beyond the institutional structures such as non-profits, community and youth organisations, and other support systems.


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