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Foreign volunteers counseling domestic violence survivors? Please, no.

August 9, 2011

I received a comment on my blog the other day. I responded by email, but I thought that the message and my response might make an interesting post here. I’ve changed/removed all identifying details from the original comment (which was posted publicly, but which I did not approve, so that I could use it in this post anonymously) and edited my response a bit. Based on the original commenter’s IP address, I think the mission group is coming from somewhere in the US.

Hi Meg,
I’m going to Cambodia on a mission trip.  One of the groups we are working with has a problem with domestic violence.  I was wondering if there are any support groups, shelters, or counselors that you could recommend?  We were asked to provide these ladies with counseling but no one on our trip has expertise in that subject matter as it relates to Cambodian society.   An alternative would be for us to educate them on the resources already available in their area to help them.  So I’m on a hunt to see if any resources exist.

(I replied with suggestions of CBOs and NGOs working with women in the province her group will be visiting first, and then shared the following questions and ideas.)

What organization are you visiting? Does anyone in your group have professional certification in medical, counseling, or social work fields? If so, do they have experience working in resource-poor areas or cross-cultural settings?

I would strongly recommend against having foreigners do any domestic violence counseling here unless they speak Khmer nearly fluently and have spent a significant amount of time living in rural Cambodia. I support counseling sessions with local staff, but even after two years here and nearly fluent Khmer language skills, I almost never do domestic violence counseling on my own. (The only exceptions are when women specifically request to speak to me individually, without other staff present.) There are several reasons for this:

  • Even with professional translators, lots of information and nuance gets lost; it is difficult to pick up on the intricacies of a woman’s story and personal response without strong conversational language skills. Beyond the direct translations, the cultural context is so different, from explanations of violence to necessary support for women to the way the local authorities can and should be involved.
  • The strategies and recommendations we would make in cases of domestic or sexual violence in the US just do not apply here. Urging a woman to consider leaving her husband or family would often be one of the first steps at home, but here, leaving would mean removing herself from her entire social support network, which tends to be more concentrated and tightly knit than in the US. The shelters and social services that we assume are available for women at home often do not exist here, or are lacking resources to provide for all the women who would like to use them.
  • Our conceptions of gender and equality are so different from what exists here that there is real potential to do damage by presenting inconsistent or confusing ideas to women who need, perhaps more than anything, tangible support.
  • The power dynamics between foreigners from the US and locals are likely to be so imbalanced that it is hard (if not impossible) to create a safe space for honest and helpful communication/problem-solving.
  • Domestic violence laws here are inconsistently enforced and difficult to navigate, so it is essential to have an understanding of the criminal justice system in a specific community before knowing how to help women there.
  • Counseling can create extremely close bonds, especially on the part of the client, very quickly, and since I imagine your group will not be for a long time, it can be really damaging to clients to build those bonds quickly and then have people leave.

In general, I am very wary of short-term groups having any role beyond listening and learning from survivors of violence (who have of course been able to freely choose if/how they share their stories with visitors). Having done some informal counseling for sexual violence survivors in the US, I would never have felt comfortable advising people unfamiliar with New England culture, English language, or our legal system to counsel the women who came to me, and I think the same standard applies here.

That said, there are incredible amounts to learn from women in Cambodia, and I hope that some of them are able to share their stories with you and your group in a way that honors their experiences and needs, and helps your group get a clearer picture of life here.

I hope this is helpful and not discouraging. It’s wonderful when people want to come here and help, and I know it means so much to many of the people in our communities here. Finding the right way to do it requires a lot of time, energy, and humility. If you don’t know the site Good Intentions Are Not Enough already, I would recommend checking out some of Saundra’s posts on volunteering abroad.

What do you think of my response? Did I forget anything important? Do you think there can ever be a role for short-term volunteers to support counseling programs? What other resources would you recommend for this volunteer or people like her?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:41 am

    Thought-provoking post, Meg! I know DV cases are so difficult here because of how tight-knit the immigrant/refugee communities are. I have serious miscommunications when discussing a high electric bill with clients via telephonic interpretation. DV counseling and broader mental health counseling are so much more serious and complex– but what’s the best option without native language speakers who are enough removed from the community as to not cause more harm than help?

  2. August 10, 2011 8:43 pm

    Hey Jen,
    I think local counselors are the best option. There aren’t nearly enough at the moment, but professional and para-professional training programs exist that are preparing more people to help all the time. I like to focus on a broader approach though — community education that helps people in every role (parents, neighbors, community leaders, etc.) rethink violence and how to offer support in cases of DV. It’s not enough, but I think it’s an important step to helping communities deal with DV in a responsible and effective way.

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