Supporting the Health of Black Women Survivors with the Resilient Sisterhood Project
Health is about the whole person. Someone isn't just a sexual assault survivor or just a person with a health condition—a person can be both at the same time, often on top of a host of other challenges. While that might seem obvious, the systems a person has to navigate, including health-care systems, often don’t take the full picture into account. And this is especially true for black women. As part of a new expanded focus on survivors’ health—and to further support black women survivors—the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) is embarking on a new collaboration with the Resilient Sisterhood Project (RSP).
Executive Director Gina Scaramella explains why BARCC is expanding to focus on lessening negative health impacts for survivors: "There are well-documented consequences for the physical health for survivors of sexual violence, including gastrointestinal disorders and chronic pelvic pain among others. Issues can get compounded by anxiety, and that decreases survivors’ access to health and dental care, including preventative care."
In addition to the poor health outcomes that survivors can experience, black women face well-documented barriers to health care. And they experience both sexual violence and reproductive health challenges at higher rates than the average. As the Women of Color Network reports, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2011), 21.2% of black women have been raped during their lifetime, and 38% have experienced other forms of sexual violence.
RSP shares that in the United States, women of African descent are affected by a significant number of diseases of the reproductive system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, uterine fibroids occur more often in black women than in any other ethnic group: 1 in 3 black women are affected by them. These women are often underdiagnosed and undertreated. Endometriosis is often misdiagnosed as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a sexually transmitted disease. For instance, 40% of African American women who were told they had pelvic inflammatory disease actually had endometriosis, one of the leading causes of infertility in women.
RSP’s mission is “to educate and empower women of African descent regarding common but rarely discussed diseases of the reproductive system that disproportionately affect them” (and they have an inclusive definition of women).
Lilly Marcelin, RSP’s executive director, founded the organization in 2012 after many years of working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence as well as human trafficking. She worked at BARCC for seven years. Lilly explained that the genesis of RSP stems from her many years of working with women affected by gender-based violence: “I kept noticing that many of the women I was working with were also experiencing a wide range of health challenges around their reproductive health. I felt that I had to do something, because besides dealing with intimate partner violence or sexual violence, many of these women were also dealing with one or more diagnosis of some type of a disease of the reproductive tract.”
With the support of the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance through funds from the Victim of Crimes Act, BARCC is investing in ways to improve the health outcomes for survivors of sexual violence. RSP and BARCC have been connected for many years, and this new collaboration zeroes in on how to support the whole-person health of black women survivors. “We're really starting to think big picture about health care and medical access needs for survivors, and I think this is an important place to start,” says Sandra Gold, manager of BARCC’s Health and Medical Advocacy program. “This collaboration helps us connect to ongoing medical services for survivors and not just the one-time visit that BARCC medical advocates currently provide in emergency rooms when someone is undergoing a sexual assault exam and evidence collection kit.”
Stephanie DeCandia, BARCC’s programs director, shares that the longstanding relationship with RSP, along with the clear links between our work, makes this a natural and meaningful collaboration that will benefit both organizations. “The intersections and inequities that black women face, in terms of exposure to sexual violence and the resulting disparities and health outcomes, as well as access to services, make this collaboration vital,” she says.
In the coming year, RSP and BARCC will develop joint trainings for hospitals, community health providers, and nonprofits involved in health care advocacy. These trainings will educate medical providers about the overlaps of sexual violence and reproductive health issues, the challenges that black women face, and the obstacles survivors of sexual violence face in getting their health needs met. And it will help those providers think through how they can improve their services and make them more accessible. “We want people to have a holistic view of women’s experiences. You have to look at all the intersections to help bring health and safety,” explains Lilly. The ultimate goal is connecting survivors to the health care that they need and deserve.
Beyond these trainings, BARCC will be deepening its connection with the communities that RSP works with. "We are really looking to strengthen our ties with black women in the communities we serve in Greater Boston,” says Stephanie, “and part of that is connecting with people who are already part of the community and working in the community—and that is what RSP is all about." To that end, BARCC will have a weekly physical presence in RSP’s community office to be a more accessible resource for survivors involved with RSP.
“Much of our work stems from the same philosophy and values such as BARCC,” says Lilly. “As result, we are delighted to have this joint collaboration, because it allows us to address issues that empower women and provide more advocacy on healing and transformative social change.”