Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global health concern and human rights issue. GBV is violence against an individual based on the individual's literal or recognized sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. GBV is influenced by societal expectations and gendered power dynamics and can encompass such acts as intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child abuse, and stalking. GBV can take many forms, including physical, emotional, economic, and sexual abuse.
While anyone can experience GBV, women face extremely high rates. For example, in the United States, it is estimated that one in four women has been exposed to GBV in some form throughout their lifetime . These numbers highlight the epidemic of GBV, which dispro-portionately impacts women of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) individuals, and women with disabilities.
When a survivor discloses a GBV experience to you, it can often be difficult to know how to respond appropriately. While every situation is different, the following are suggestions from survivors and their advocates.
First, listen. Rather than starting with doubt, start by believing. Allow the survivor to lead the conversation. Match the terminology of the survivor and do not label their experience for them. Avoid asking questions and let the survivor know you are glad that they told you. It is important to recognize that silence is okay.
Next, affirm their courage and strength. Ensure that they are safe and ask “how can I be helpful?” Validate their feelings. Most importantly, respect the decisions the survivor makes even if you do not agree with them. Remember, this person has had their power and control taken away from them so it is important that they have control over this conversation with you.
Next, refer and connect the survivor to resources. There are a variety of local and national organizations devoted to comprehensive GBV crisis intervention, advocacy, and support. You are not expected to be an expert in this topic, but directing survivors to people who are will help them get continued care and allow them to receive tailored information for their needs.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. You may feel anger towards the situation or towards the perpetrator. You may feel helpless that you can't relieve the survivor of their suffering. You may feel guilt that you didn’t notice the situation sooner. You may even worry that you did not say the right things. Know your feelings are valid and if you need to seek help for these feelings too that is also okay. Just by listening and being there, you are doing enough.
Beyond helping an individual survivor, you could also volunteer your time or donate your money to an organization that is fighting to end GBV and supports survivors. If there is no one in your community advocating for GBV survivors, be the first one. You can volunteer at a community rape crisis center or domestic violence shelter in your area. Most organizations that are working to address GBV rely on volunteers and funding to be efficient.
Working to end GBV and support survivors is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process of growing ourselves, challenging our culture, and fighting for justice. You can be a part of the solution. Your action can make a difference.