Intergenerational aspects

Intergenerational trauma and the role of community dialogue in healing


Saving the next generation from centuries of traumatic legacy

The concept of intergenerational trauma was identified after World War II when psychologists realized that the descendant generations of Holocaust survivors were over-represented in consultations for mental health problems, such as nightmares and emotional and behavioural problems. Thus, the original trauma of grandparents appeared to have an impact on grandchildren (Nos pensées, 2017).  Intergenerational trauma refers to this phenomenon of transmission, often unconsciously, of trauma from a parent to a child.  

In the case of FGM, the pain associated with having experienced the practice is often perceived as an individual. However, it is entangled in family and intergenerational relationships. Women who have undergone FGM not only carry the trauma of the practice but also carry the burden of not complaining, not caring about their mental health and internalizing that the suffering is normal.

Venoranda R. Kuboka, a child and adolescent therapist and team leader at Youth Changers Kenya, explains:

“In Kenya, the trauma experienced by women and girls is compounded by the fact that they are encouraged not to talk about what they are feeling, to hide their pain and this feeling of numbness that they are facing. Survivors end up suffering in silence for years.”

The denial of their suffering and the disregard for expressing their feelings makes it even more difficult to talk about what they have experienced later. People tend to normalize what they have experienced.

“You endure a traumatic experience and one of the ways to cope with that specific experience is to normalize it. If you are not provided with the appropriate mechanisms to deal with the trauma, it will often manifest itself at the expense of your loved ones.”
An anonymous author about her grandmother’s stance on FGM, on the Sahiyo NGO blog

Thus, Venoranda and Joanny Bassolé, a psychologist and clinician from Burkina Faso, emphasize the importance of starting a dialogue between generations to break the vicious cycle and allow future generations to understand the trauma of previous generations, and come to an end to the practice of FGM.

“The conflict around FGM is relegated to the political and social space but is not treated as an intergenerational issue – as something that is passed on to the next generations and needs to be perpetuated. I believe that this dimension is important when it comes to mental health. That’s why the issue of FGM would benefit from being discussed more within families.”      
Joanny Bassolé, Burkina Faso psychologist and clinician

According to the psychologist, intra-family dialogue between generations can help break the chain of suffering fortified from generation to generation. This view is shared by Farzana Doctor, a psychotherapist and FGM survivor: “therapy focusing on the family system can help question how relationships and feelings towards family members are affected by the practice of FGM.”

At last year’s CoP discussion on mental health, in which Farzana spoke, experts also concluded that intergenerational discussions should also be encouraged to link the survivors’ personal healing journey with that of protecting future generations. Talking about FGM with one’s children, with one’s parents and extended family, and with members of one’s community, helps to heal and protect future generations from FGM.

It is also important to remember that FGM may not be the only sexual violence experienced by survivors. Indeed, women in the communities concerned are also likely to have suffered other sexual violence, assault, forced marriage, rape. The culture of silence that surrounds the practice can create the context for a traumatic memory that places the family at the center of the guilt. These individuals may then wonder why their family did nothing to protect them.

  • How can we understand and work on intergenerational trauma stemming from the experience of FGM?
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