Disclosing Sexual Violence in Migration

November 6, 2019

Service providers in Mexico try out tools to support migrants’ safe disclosure of sexual and gender-based violence: WashU puts research into practice

Professor Seelinger and UNHCR officer Sofia Cardona discuss disclosure “do’s and don’ts” with service providers in Tenosique, Mexico.

by Julia Uyttewaal, MA , Center Manager and Researcher, Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration, Institute for Public Health

There is another southern border that we don’t hear much about: Mexico’s border with Guatemala. More and more people are fleeing violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Over 500,000 people left these countries in the first half of 2019 – almost double the yearly average of the past five years. They are passing through southern Mexico or, in many cases, being detained there. A large number are trying to escape gender-based violence – domestic violence, gang rape, homophobic discrimination. The number of gender-motivated murders in Central America has increased dramatically in recent years and LGTBQI individuals are increasingly targeted. Many people also suffer gender-based violence on the road, whether at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, cartels, humanitarian workers, or state officials. While reliable numbers are hard to come by, studies have estimated that anywhere from 24% to 60% of women traveling north through Mexico suffer some form of gender-based violence. For LGBTQI individuals, that number is as high as 50%.

At the request of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Kim Thuy Seelinger and I visited Mexico’s southern border in 2017 to learn from service providers about the challenges of detecting and responding to gender-based violence among the migrants and refugees traveling through the region. We examined the particularly difficult issue of disclosure of this type of violence, especially in this migration context where people travel quickly from town to town and are often targeted by cartels. In these circumstances, what might motivate someone to share their experience of sexual violence with a service provider, and what might hold them back? What strategies were service providers using to enable disclosure? When was it safe and ethical to encourage disclosure — and when was it not?

Without disclosure, response systems are of little use. If someone does not share what happened to them, service providers are limited in what they can do to care for a survivor’s needs – be those medical, psychological, legal, shelter, or other needs. Disclosure is the key that unlocks the gateway to response services.

In 2018, when we were still at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, we co-published with the UNHCR our research findings on the disclosure of gender-based violence in the Guatemala-Mexico migration context. UNHCR and its partner organizations – including shelter providers, legal aid organizations, and health clinics – also wanted something practical that could help them in their day to day work with survivors. So we drew from our research findings to produce a set of draft practice tools meant to strengthen service providers’ approach to disclosure and included them in our research report. From a typology to training modules to awareness-raising activities, the draft tools aimed to offer conceptual frameworks and opportunities for practical engagement with the issues of disclosure and information sharing related to gender-based violence.

Then, last month, we returned to Mexico – now as representatives of the Institute for Public Health’s new Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration – to test and improve these gender-based violence disclosure tools with the UNHCR and its partner institutions in Acayucan, Tenosique, and Mexico City. Three day-long workshops brought together lawyers, doctors, nurses, shelter staff, psychologists, asylum officers, immigration officers, child protection officers, public defenders, and human rights advocates. Often in the same room for the first time, we discussed “disclosure” as both a concept and a practical reality, hearing from participants the many ways in which migrants and refugees come to them and share their stories of sexual violence. We also tried out the draft tools we had developed as a result of our initial research and revised them throughout the week with feedback from practitioners. Workshop participants ultimately felt that approaches to disclosure had to be nuanced. For instance, while everyone in an organization should be prepared to respond to disclosure, it is not everyone’s responsibility to probe for or seek disclosure from a potential survivor.

Seelinger, lower right, and Uyttewaal, top row center with blue shirt, join the UNHCR team in Acayucan, Mexico, for a workshop with representatives from civil society organizations and state institutions.

Ultimately, we plan to develop and publish a fully revised version of the entire disclosure toolkit that incorporates feedback from workshop participants and other practitioners throughout the Americas region. We will share revisions with members of UNHCR’s Regional Safe Spaces Network in the Americas region, so that more service providers are able to support migrants and refugees with experiences of sexual violence who may want or need to disclose. The goal is greater coordination throughout the Americas region on approaches to gender-based violence disclosure, so we can contribute tangibly to survivors’ well-being. At the Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration, our priority is making sure our research has value in practice and is usable for those on the front lines.

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