Cultural Competency | Gender Competency

Cultural competency in the domestic violence field requires supplementing the four basic components - awareness, attitudes, knowledge and skills - with a gendered analysis. This means (a) maintaining a critique of patriarchal culture without confirming negative cultural stereotypes, (b) resisting the hierarchy of oppressions trap, and (c) focusing primarily on changing and instituting good practice and less on addressing cultural stereotyping (which can often induce diversity-training fatigue).

Gender competency in the field is equally important to all survivors. Gender bias is evidenced overtly and covertly at so many points of contact, and many systems and resources designed to protect victims of gender-based violence, can also cause harm. Gender competency does not mean being educated in feminist theory, just as cultural competency does not mean being an anthropologist. Instead, both competencies incorporate analyses about gender, culture, identity and inter-personal violence; and examine how biases diminish good practice.

Integrating gender competency and cultural competency ensures the integrity of individual and systems advocacy and the principles of equity and justice in meeting the complex needs of primary and collateral victims/survivors.

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Understanding the Cultures We Live In

Culture is too hastily understood as ethnic culture, but in fact we all inhabit multiple cultures simultaneously and need to understand which ones we are operating in to be effective.

1. Culture of domestic violence and gender inequality

  • The presence of domestic violence tells us about the presence of inequality in a relationship; the extent of the violence tells us about the extent of the inequality.
  • All cultures have gender inequality, the degree of inequality differs, the space to push against the boundaries differs and the rigidity with which these structures are maintained differs.
  • Equality does not imply everything is perfectly divided in half all the time. Rather, it is the space where both members of a couple can negotiate those divisions fairly, without fear.

2. Culture of familial and community values and norms

  • Familial cultural values within relationships should be viewed as being on a continuum where they keep shifting rather than being absolute, fixed positions. E.g., expectations of children’s obedience will vary between parents, at different times, in different places (such as when visiting grandparents).
  • How family norms operate differs in relationships and changes within relationships.
  • Cultural norms in communities are dynamic, changing; not confined to one culture but present in all, with different forms of expression and adaptation. E.g., in European culture, arranged marriages are now only sporadically practiced between upper classes to keep or consolidate family wealth or virtue (Princess Diana and Prince Charles); amongst South Asians, they are practiced traditionally (parents arranging a match) and in modernized form (a global dating service).
  • This is not to minimize how harmful traditional cultural norms can be but to be reminded about who defines, changes and subverts them.

3. Culture of systems

  • Systems have their own culture - victims/survivors have to function within the culture of shelters, of the courts, of the criminal and civil legal system, immigration system, child welfare system, etc.
  • The culture of systems can be so prescriptive as to not meet people’s needs. E.g., in a shelter, excessive rules can make refuge and rest impossible.
  • Systems’ policies and procedures often put the onus on victims instead of providing resources or justice. E.g., in the child welfare system, a worker’s difficulty in addressing paternal violence can result in punitive maternal compliance plans.

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Cultural Competency: Quick Tips

1. Distinguish when cultural explanations are pertinent.

E.g., a rural shelter frames an Indian woman’s reluctance to use common bathrooms as a function of her cultural attitudes to nudity. The more appropriate question is what would a battered woman in this situation want; rather than what are Indian women’s attitudes to nudity?

Therefore, ascertain if the lens of gender answers a question or suggests a solution more effectively than the lens of culture.

2. Do not accept culture as an explanation for domestic violence.

When one hears “this is how women are treated in my culture” what’s being described is the culture of patriarchy, sexism and violence against women. The cultural devaluations of women differ from place to place, from time to time, and in their degrees of rigidity, but are used to the same end, to justify domestic violence.

Therefore, advocates should use cultural justifications to understand (a) how tightly prescribed and rigid gender relations are; (b) how their interventions will challenge traditional roles; (c) what battered women are up against (e.g., tradition requires silence); and (d) what threats or risks (e.g., being deported) will follow when breaking from tradition (e.g., disclosing victimization).

3. Use an understanding of cultural differences to prompt better advocacy and not confirm or sensationalize stereotypes.

E.g., burning a woman to death or shooting her dead – one seems more horrific than the other based on what people are exposed to in their own culture, but in fact both acts are equally horrific. The method of killing does not make one group of men more horribly violent than the other, although our stereotypes may make us think so. We all hold stereotypes, the important thing is to recognize them, set them aside, stay client-focused, and be the best advocates we can.

Therefore, intake, interview or assessment questions to a client (e.g., to assess danger) have to be crafted and interpreted correctly (e.g., asking if batterer has threatened her with a gun does not rule out homicide danger).

4. Identify the impact of the culture of systems on battered women.

E.g., when child protective services intervenes, instead of getting resources that would help a battered mother keep her housing and her children, she is required to go to a shelter in order to keep her children.

Therefore, cross-systems advocacy needs to be strengthened and survivors prepared by advocates about negotiating the cultures of systems. The cultural competency of advocates in negotiating systems is critical to survivors’ well-being.

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Webinar: Analyzing Culture to Design Community-Based Programs (2014)

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What is Cultural Competency and Why Should I Care?

Training Curriculum designed by Sujata Warrier, Ph.D.

A series of Power Point slides to be used by advocates

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Technical Assistance

Looking for fresh ways to approach cultural competency trainings? Contact us.

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