News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration

Collaborator Spotlight! Lindsay Stark, DrPH, MPH

Lindsay Stark, DrPH, MPH

Associate Professor of Social Work and Public Health
Co-Director, Center for Violence and Injury Prevention
Co-Director, International Center for Child Health and Development
Brown School at Washington University
Faculty Scholar, Institute for Public Health

Bio: Dr. Stark is an internationally recognized expert on the protection and well-being of women and children in situations of extreme adversity. She has more than a decade of experience leading applied research with operational agencies that include UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Women’s Refugee Commission.

“Routine sexual violence against women and girls by intimate partners and family members remains the most prevalent, largely unrecognized, and understudied form of wartime violence.” -Dr. Lindsay Stark

Read more about her work.

A Conversation with Lindsay Stark:

Tell us about your work related to human rights, gender and migration.

Conflict, climate change, drought and other natural disasters have resulted in the highest levels of displacement ever recorded. Working at the intersection of global health, human rights and gender, I seek to further our understanding of the personal, relational and contextual risks and protective factors for women and girls in humanitarian settings. Violence is a global epidemic that is estimated to affect one in three women and one in four girls under the age of 18. The majority of the data on interpersonal violence comes from developed country contexts, and there is a lack of understanding as to the scale and scope of violence in humanitarian settings. This data gap has left practitioners and policy makers with little information from which to understand the effectiveness of their programs or policies. My work seeks to address this evidentiary gap.

Currently, I am working on a few projects that seek to reduce this gap. I am partnering with CARE USA to collect some of the first robust evidence on the effectiveness of Women and Girls Safe Spaces in emergencies. Safe Spaces are dedicated spaces for women and girls where social networks are developed and other essential services are delivered. Safe Spaces are considered a pillar of good practice in humanitarian emergencies, yet there is little evidence supporting this popular intervention.

I am also working with Women’s Refugee Commission and Mercy Corps to conduct a pilot evaluation of a new intervention being implemented in northern Nigeria. The evaluation compares a, sibling-centered life skills intervention for brothers and sisters with a traditional intervention model that engages only girls and their caregivers. The goal is to understand the feasibility and effectiveness of engaging families in gender-transformative violence prevention programming. Finally, I am working with UNICEF to pilot methodologies for assessing the cost of gender-based violence (GBV) programming in emergencies and gauging the potential for Women’s Empowerment Collectives to mitigate GBV risks.

Dr. Stark, top row, second from left, with her team in Mexico. The team is working on a project that looks at the self-reliance of refugee households.

How did you get started in this work?

As part of my MPH studies, I spent three months living in a remote village in Sierra Leone, conducting qualitative research on the effects of traditional cleansing ceremonies on female former child soldiers. During my time in Sierra Leone, these girls shared their accounts of the unimaginable experiences they lived through, the harm that was done to them – not only the many wartime atrocities they experienced, but also the rejection, stigma and fear they faced when returning home. I was able to document how communal cleaning ceremonies helped these girls leave their wartime experiences behind and allowed communities to welcome them back. I was and continue to be inspired by these girls’ incredible resilience. Despite all that happened to them, the majority of the girls I spoke with were ready for what the future holds and excited to be back in school or working to earn a living. Every day in my work with survivors of sexual violence, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the strength of the women I meet.

What is one myth/misconception most people have about the issue you work on?

During the last decade, my research has challenged a conventional narrative of wartime rape, which assumes that sexual violence is predominately carried out by soldiers, rebel fighters, or strangers while women and girls collect firewood, fetch water, and go about their daily lives. While such abuses do continue as a systematic form of aggression, my work has helped illuminate that routine sexual violence against women and girls by intimate partners and family members remains the most prevalent, largely unrecognized, and understudied form of wartime violence.

Tell us about one connection between research, policy, and practice that you have seen in your work.

My research (along with others’) has helped illuminate the increased risk of intimate partner violence (IPV) and family violence in humanitarian settings. In the past decade, I have seen how this research has informed and changed both policy and practice. Today, donor dollars are being dedicated to programs specifically targeting IPV and family violence in emergencies. Humanitarian agencies are also developing programming to try to shift norms and behaviors in these settings. We have a long way to go, but I am so pleased to see policy makers dedicating funding to these issues and programmers innovating new interventions to move the needle on these more hidden forms of violence against women and girls.

What would be your dream project or collaboration, and why?

My dream project would be to initiate a longitudinal cohort study – following adolescent girls who have been displaced due to conflict over a number of years. Most of the data we have on women and girls in humanitarian settings comes from cross-sectional assessments and program evaluations. It would be a huge contribution to the field to have a more complex and evidence-based understanding of risk and protective factors for women and girls who have been displaced and whose lives have been affected by conflict. Following cohorts of girls in different parts of the world over time, using the kinds of technologies now available to us, can provide a wealth of information about young people’s trajectories as they emerge from conflict – including what kinds of support may be the most useful to them.

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