The use of story-telling to look at responses to sexual abuse in Argentina

By Alejandro Capriati, Researcher at CONICET/University of Buenos Aires


Story-telling in Youth Work is a process used by workers, tutors and students that work with young people. In England many of them are government-employed youth workers specially trained for working with young people that are not part of formal education or health services and work in open-access spaces for young people. These have few restrictions on young people’s engagement and are spaces where young people can hang out, take part in a great range of activities (radio, music, art, courses, cooking, etc.), or just do nothing. Each youth centre works in its own way, but is based on the principal of voluntary engagement, and has a focus on relationships, the building of trust between young people and workers, and personal development. From that starting point, some young people may reengage with formal education, report abuse, get support with substance misuse, etc.

There are similarities and differences in the work with young people in English youth centres and in certain projects in Argentina carried out by charities or as part of some social programmes. Looking at these comparisons has been the focus point of a collaboration with Colin Brent, a manager of a youth centre in London, with the aim of adapting our practice and sharing experiences. As part of this exchange of ideas I have taken up using the story-telling technique.

The idea is to adapt the technique to each situation and context

This technique can be used face-to-face in work with young people; as a resource for organisation change through staff training, supervision and monitoring; to communicate the value of youth work; and to evaluate projects. The general aim is for youth workers and their colleagues to have a clear idea of what is distinct in their practise and how this is important for the young people, using critical reflexion about methods of intervention to identify successes, challenges and inconclusive processes.

The objective is for participants to be able to critically reflect on the uniqueness of youth work through describing and analysing an example of practice, exploring the meaning of it for themselves and for the young people. Of course, the idea is to adapt the technique to each situation and context, and below I share our experience.

Our experience of using the story-telling technique took place during training workshops about the rights and health of young people. These workshops were in the Calchaqui Valleys, in north-west Argentina, and form part of a collaboration between a research group, a community organisation led by a nun and an indigenous council, and that has the support of local government and an international human rights organisation. At the start the collaboration consisted of carrying out an analysis of the local situation, the prioritization of issues, planning actions and the creation of a mutual plan at a regional level. After almost a year of work, three projects were identified and activities were put together. In the midst of this there were changes in the organisations, at a national level, in some provincial governments and in the workers in the human rights organisation. Despite this, the collaboration went ahead and at the start of July 2016 the training workshop about rights and health took place, a new stage in the collaboration.

57 people took part in the workshop, their only common denominator being their work with young people. It was a mixed group: workers in state-run areas (education, health, social development, civil protection, police and justice services), indigenous community leaders, and members of social organisations. The theme of the workshop was to empower actions to promote healthy lifestyles and to strengthen actions to prevent the abuse of young people, as well as the institutional responses to the detection of abuse and for the protection of victims.

Hearing and seeing the testimony of a victim of abuse made those present even more aware of the issues involved

Before using the story-telling technique, two case studies were looked at by the whole group. First, a typical account of a case of abuse that was hidden by the family but suspected by the school was read out. The rights that had been denied were identified and the family silence, the role of the teacher and that of the school were debated. Then we used a video of an interview with a young woman who had survived abuse to uncover a case of institutional complicity amongst the health and justice services. Hearing and seeing the testimony of a victim of abuse made those present even more aware of the issues involved. As one of the participants fed back, it was a very moving day.

After these debates, the focus shifted to local situations and the existing responses, using the story-telling technique. The group was divided into three, depending on the area they were from, with a facilitator in each group. The instructions were to choose a story, in all its complexities, in order to gain a precise understanding of how suspicions or a disclosure of abuse came about and what were the interventions and responses to this on a personal, institutional and community level. The process was broken down into four parts:

  • First part: each participant wrote the title and a brief summary of a story of a case of abuse of a child or young people on a sheet of paper. The story was to be told to a way to protect the anonymity of all of the people involved. It was not compulsory of come up with a story.
  • Second part: each participant read the title and summary of their story and the group selected one.
  • Third part: the selected story was told in full and the facilitator and other participants asked questions to understand the in-depth details of the case.
  • Forth part: the existing responses and interventions were analysed, and difficulties, good practice and areas of improvement were identified. Each group shared their analysis with the rest of the participants.

valles-sin-personas-iiExperiences of Alejandro Capriati

I facilitated one of the groups, made up of thirteen people, eleven adults and two young people, all from the same area. There were teachers, indigenous community leaders, workers in civil protection and young people from a centre for students. The first minutes of the sessions were the only difficult ones: the silence of the participants lasted five minutes. In the preparation of the workshop we had discussed the possibility that participants would not bring cases and we would not be able to proceed with the exercise. Eventually, a social worker came up with the first story, with eight others adding theirs. We had to vote to decide which of the stories to hear. A story by a head teacher about a case of abuse within a family uncovered by her colleagues at the school was chosen; it was a case in which the victim was supported by the school.

Each facilitator had a basic guide of questions to help with the story-telling process (in which areas of provision was something suspected or disclosed and why; how did the story continue; what people, groups or institutions appeared; what were the interventions that took place around the case). In the group that I facilitated it was not necessary to use the guide as the questions of the participants cleared up each grey area in the story. Each facilitator also had a guide of strategies for interventions in typical cases of sexual abuse to be able to conduct the analysis of the difficulties and successes in the case. In contrast to the conventional use of this technique used by youth workers, in this workshop the participants had a range of training and belonged to different institutions and communities.

The story-telling technique allowed for a local case to be vocalised and focussed on the in-depth analysis of concrete practice

The story-telling technique allowed for a local case to be vocalised and focussed on the in-depth analysis of concrete practice, thereby enabling participants not just to think in the abstract about a ‘text-book’ case, but to dig into the uniqueness of the story and the emotive scenes that were described. In the following group exchanges ways of working were identified through questioning and analysis that would improve practice. In this way, the story-telling technique enabled critical reflection on interventions and brought to attention several areas for improvement around civil protection and the justice services.


Experiences of Ana Clara Camarotti

The group I facilitated was made up of eighteen adults and two young people, all from the same area. When they were asked to write their own stories of abuse they immediately started to discuss different situations that they had witnessed, been a part of or simply heard of happening locally. The first person to start to talk about a case of abuse was one of the young people. I asked that the stories were written down, so that everyone could reflect on their own experiences first. The twenty cases were compared to give an idea of the local situations that were arising. Upon sharing the summaries out loud, the story by a member of the court system of a case that had been resolved was selected. I think that the fact the case had been resolved helped the group to relax a bit. The entire telling of the story was very interesting. The process of the reconstruction of the experience, through the different opinions of the participants and the different social roles that they have, allowed for a far more in-depth approach to the story.

Experiences of the group of Gabriela Wald

I agree with the appraisals of my colleagues, who have already described the methods. Similarly, my group was able to work within the framework that we had set. The only thing to add is that in my group they chose a case that was neither known nor reported, only close family members of the victim knew about it. Therefore, we were unable to identify resources or strategies that had been used, as the case had been surrounded by silence within the family. The woman, abused at the age of seven, revealed what had happened to her mother and brothers twenty years later when she separated from her husband. The husband had hit her and when she decided to divorce him, her brothers had not supported her, telling her to return to him. When she did divorce him she told them about the violence she had suffered at the hands of her husband as well as the sexual abuse in her childhood by her teenage uncles.