Multinational Pursuits: The Sisters Fund as Action-Research


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color photo of Denise Saint Arnault
U-M Nursing professor Denise M. Saint Arnault
color photo of Denise Saint Arnault
U-M Nursing professor Denise M. Saint Arnault

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

In 2009, the World Health Organization identified gender-based violence as a serious and pervasive social problem, disproportionately affecting women around the world, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions or ethnicity. Women who have experienced such violence are at an increased risk of depression and suicide attempts, physical injuries, psychosomatic disorders, unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other STDs, and are at risk for being killed by an intimate partner. While women can certainly heal after experiences of trauma, the road to healing has added complexities because of cultural and social barriers.

U-M Nursing professor Denise M. Saint Arnault, has made it her life’s work to understand gender, cultural and social influences on mental health, trauma recovery, and help-seeking. In 2014, when a report released by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) showed less than 20% of European women who experience domestic violence seek help, Dr. Saint Arnault became determined to find out why, and what can be done to change this dismal statistic.

 "According to a 2014 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, less than 20% of European women who experience domestic violence seek help."

At the time, Dr. Saint Arnault was conducting trauma recovery research as a consultant with an Irish NGO called SAFE Ireland (Sharon O’Halloran, CEO). Together, they decided to gauge the interest of their fellow researchers at a conference in Italy. The interest was immediate, specifically intriguing to an Italian colleague who was already well-connected with several international gender-based violence researchers and service agencies. Soon a central team of researchers was formed with collaborative partners from Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Romania, and the U.S. Collectively, they began to design a study focusing on help-seeking behaviors (or lack thereof) in survivors of violence across these countries and cultures.

Like most major research, especially international projects requiring travel, funding is critical. Since many international research grants solely support education, funding for action research (which is undertaken with the intention to reform a social issue or problem) is challenging to find. Saint Arnault first heard about IRWG’s grant programs through fellow U-M Nursing colleagues whose research was previously funded by IRWG. She came across the Sisters Fund for Global Health, which supports projects that address global health issues related to women and gender. The fund also seeks to enhance activist scholarship that benefits local and global communities experiencing gender-based health disparities. Saint Arnault thought the Sisters Fund would make an ideal funding source because of the global scope and feminist perspective of the project. Additionally, help-seeking behaviors among women experiencing domestic violence is largely unstudied. Recognizing the need and possible implications for long-term policy and societal reform, she applied, describing her experience as a “serendipitous convergence” -- applying the same year the FRA Report was published.

In 2015 Saint Arnault was awarded a Sisters Fund grant. Her research team has worked diligently to coordinate the complexities of a global study -- from the development of shared perspectives and procedures that could work across diverse cultures, to language translations and travel logistics. The team has focused on relationship building with each other and with their respective service agencies in the five European Union countries and the U.S., as well as developing their collective research methodologies.

Domestic violence can be a challenging topic that often invokes nervousness among researchers, specifically when it comes to methodologies that can feel intrusive, or have the potential to re-traumatize the survivor. When designing their study, Saint Arnault and her research partners intentionally chose the clinical ethnographic interview (developed by Saint Arnault) as their primary source of data collection. This method is safe and empowering because it uses an evidence-based approach, fostering  a coherent narrative that enables survivors to speak for themselves, while also allowing them to develop self-awareness about their strengths and their help-seeking challenges.

To be clear, the intention in this research is not to blame the victim for failing to access services. Rather, Saint Arnault articulates, “We are focused on helping women illuminate the implicit social and cultural barriers that have been preventing her (the survivor) from seeking help for her own healing. It has been my experience in these interviews that women want to understand and challenge how these forces have affected their willingness and ability to engage in trauma-related healing.”

Pending approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), interviews are scheduled for summer 2016 with researchers convening for data interpretation and synthesis this October in Portugal. Each research partner will conduct 6-10 interviews from their country of origin that will hopefully expose some shared barriers women experience (knowingly and unknowingly) that prevent them from seeking help. This, of course, requires an understanding of barriers within various cultural contexts. One example of recognizing barriers that may not be readily identified by someone experiencing violence is the culturally ingrained influence of family and the subsequent values ascribed to it. For instance, a mother may instruct a daughter to stay with an abusive husband, in efforts to minimize or prevent shame brought upon the family (as stigmatized by that particular culture). Without considering another option given the specific cultural (and even familial) schema, the daughter abides -- which in turn could discourage her from seeking help or services.

For Saint Arnault’s data collection in the U.S., she intends to interview survivors from Ann Arbor’s Safe House, MSU’s Safe House, and the YWCA of Kalamazoo. Once the infrastructure is set and the initial interviews are completed, the research team intends to invite more countries to participate in a second round of interviews that will impact the greater trajectory of the overall project. Austria, Norway, and Greece have expressed interest in joining the study.

Saint Arnault and her team hope the study will have widespread and long-lasting impact. To continue the work, researchers are considering a multi-faceted approach that would include: a base intervention at the local service level, a large scale preventive education media campaign (such as SAFE Ireland’s “Man Up” campaign) and policy reformations to ensure the protection of survivors.

Saint Arnault concludes, “This kind of contextualized knowledge and awareness brings consciousness and empowerment, reduces shame, and liberates women to find the joy they deserve.”



In 2006, IRWG, with the Department of Women’s Studies, and the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, launched The Sisters Fund for Global. It was the first time in the University’s history that a research fund was created and financed primarily by women for the purpose of addressing global health issues related to women and gender.

Since the fund’s inception, 14 U-M faculty have received support for their scholarship or creative activities that benefit local and global communities experiencing gender-based health disparities. These range from Jody R. Lori’s (Nursing) research on causes of maternal mortality in Liberia, to Jane Hassinger’s (IRWG) and Janis Miller’s (Nursing) study of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to rebuilding resilience among disabled women in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand by Petra Kuppers (English, Women’s Studies, Art and Design).

You can provide direct support for similar action research project. Donate to the Sisters Fund for Global Health today.

Learn more about how to apply for a Sisters Fund Grant.

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