Working towards a trauma-informed society : Reflections from Mike Abrams

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You need to understand trauma to be sensitive to it and then start looking at all your systems,” explains Mike Abrams, a facilitator from Hands On, who is running trauma-informed approach workshops with the Scalabrini Centre. These workshops have been exploring the impact of historical, collective and inter-generational trauma on collectives and organisations.  

Through the workshops, Scalabrini is working to equip a group of people within the organisation – staff and peer facilitators – to understand what creates the intergenerational and historical trauma and look at how we can make the centre a more welcoming space – a space “which allows people to thrive and grow despite the pain and difficulty.”  

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A violent past and present

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South Africa has a long history with violence; from the colonialists to the apartheid regime, to our present day. “From time to time, the country is reminded that its past continues to make its present and future difficult”. One of these reminders was the recent looting in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng.  

Sexual and gender-based violence has been described as the second pandemic by Cyril Ramaphosa, with cases of rape increasing by 72.4% compared to the last reporting period. Xenophobia is a hot topic in South Africa too. 

“When we talk about SGBV and xenophobia, we talk about different kinds of violence, we almost keep them separate. We silo them,” Mike explains. “Violence is the same, whether it is xenophobic, criminal or domestic. The perpetrators are generally men who have grown up in a system with toxic masculinity.”  

One of the focuses of the trauma-informed workshops is inter-generational trauma. “It can be argued that inter-generational trauma breaks down the thinking and caring networks of a society.” These thinking and caring networks have been broken down over generations in South Africa – “we resolve this by turning inwards and on others that we love or externalise it through violence on others. As our networks break down, we normalise the use of violence in the absence of caring.”  

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“The second pandemic”

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When it comes to SGBV, we speak of “monster men”. “A person with a violent masculine identity is created. It is nurtured by systems of toxic masculinity and it’s generational.”  

It goes back to historical and inter-generational trauma. “Rape culture goes back to the early enslaved people. The root of the problem goes as far back as that.” It is systemic.  

So, what can be done?  

The focus is predominantly on the victim of SGBV. “It is unquestionable that we need to support women, but we also need to work with men and the system that creates violent masculinities as a norm.” From the work that Mike does, he has seen that we are not properly dealing with what men are facing.   

“A key driver is what we call ‘father hunger’, the hunger for a father who is absent. The emotional hollowness that occurs for cis-gender men is very difficult for them. It’s about ‘what I lost because I never had a father’.” Mike has seen men from many different life circumstances become vulnerable when asked to read out a letter to their father. “It is a common experience in South Africa.” 

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Looking ahead

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Many organisations across South Africa are dedicating their work to ending the violence, but “we can’t start with the problem.” We need to ask questions like; why are these men doing it? and what is going on with them? “Trauma is a subjective experience of violence, threat, loss, exclusion and powerlessness that results in a negative change in how we view ourselves, our relationship to others and our place in the world.” Quote from R-Cubed 

We need to start with where men are at if we want to unblock any form of violence.  

Once we understand collective, inter-generational and historical trauma, we can start working on self-regulation and moving forward with life despite what has happened to you. “To see change requires a disruption of this cycle.”