Today’s guest author is Dr. Monica Carrer. Monica is a researcher and practitioner in the field of peace and conflict studies, specializing in everyday peace and micro-level dynamics of violence. She has conducted fieldwork research in a post-conflict setting in India. She is half Indian and half Italian, and a proud mother of two.
When I was writing up my doctoral thesis in Peace and Conflict Studies, I became a mother for the first time. Parenting a very special neurodiverse child taught me more about peace and conflict than any book, and it led me to design the award-winning ‘The Everyday Peace Toolkit Project’, where ‘peace’ is not an abstract, far away concept, but practical strategies that we use to respond to challenges that we face in our lives and communities – for example raising, protecting, and advocating for a child that could be perceived as different.
When my first son was born, my husband and I had been living in Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand, for a couple of years. We had moved here for my PhD at the University of Otago, and, as a mixed Indian-Italian family, we were very far from our homes. At that time, I used to spend a lot of time imagining all the things I envisioned I would do with my child, but it was different from what I expected. I did not know about ‘neurodiversity’ then. My little one surprised us everyday with his talents, and the same time there were anxieties, difficulties and behaviours that we could not understand or know how to deal with. It took years of learning, a journey that was not always easy, and that I have had to figure out mostly all by myself. During this whole time, I have had to learn to advocate for my son’s health and needs, and how to respond to them myself. I have learnt that to do what it takes to do what is right for him, no matter what others would think or how they judge me.
My research would have never been the same without going through this experience in my own life. What I discovered through my research on micro-level conflict dynamics was that the powerful force behind peace action were often families -not necessarily biological ones. Before my pregnancy, I had conducted my fieldwork in remote rural villages in India that have just come out of a violent conflict. I interviewed insurgents and state forces, people who planted bombs and killed many, leaders and politicians, but the most eye opening interviews were those with ordinary people: families, parents, grandparents, neighbors. People who cared about each other. This is what I call ‘everyday peace’. Their stories were much about navigating everyday struggles with institutions, like schools, health care services, justice, and so on, just like so many people do in very different contexts and parts of the world.
After completing my PhD, I decided to found ‘The everyday Peace Initiative’ because I wanted to devote my energy to research that would directly support the action of people and families navigating everyday challenges in their lives, challenges that I would call ‘everyday violence’. I’m not just talking about physical violence, but all those incidents, relationships, or structures that hurt you physically or emotionally, humiliate you, take away their agency and sense of dignity in some way.
We tend to think that people are rather powerless when it comes to violence. We are seen as either victims or perpetrators, and rely on institutions to sort it out. And, I guess, we do feel powerless at times. We are made to feel so, and, as my research is revealing, there are many reasons why it is often so difficult to respond.
Although we would hope the we could all count on institutions to stay safe and thrive, the more I look at everyday violence, at real life experiences of real people, this is not always the case.
So what do we do when we have to deal with everyday violence in our lives? What do we do when, not only we cannot count on institutions to help us, but it is institutions themselves that hurt us or our children?
Today I came across a post in a local mother’s social media group, of a mother whose child was being physically harmed in school, and the school was doing nothing to help and blaming the child. The mother was asking what she could be doing to protect her child. Other mothers came out with similar stories and talked about what they had done. Some of those strategies might have worked, some others less, but the point is that if we systematically put together all the lessons we learn from our experiences and the knowledge that comes from it, it could help future families in those situations, so they would not have to figure it all out by themselves. This is what I am trying to achieve with my current research project called ‘The Everyday Peace Toolkit’. This is a research project that aims not just at academic publications, but at putting together free digital resources that could provide practical guidance in those circumstances, when you see harm and you are like ‘so what do I do now?’
I have put together 5 surveys, including one on harm in schools and institutions that I have designed specifically to understand more in depth the use of seclusion, restraint, and other forms of harm and coercion on children and youth. This survey is designed as a tool to understand in depth what happens in those circumstances, and what we can transform. It should only take about 10-15 minutes, or it could be a bit longer if you decide to tell us more of your story. The more we know, the more we can learn how to manage those situations, or even avoid them in the first place. It could also help people who have been through these situations think of dimensions of their experience that they might have not thought about before. From a micro-sociological perspective, there are many details that could help us understand better how those incidents happen. In what kind of contexts do these situations usually happen? When? Where? Who is present? What are the triggers? How does the situation escalate?
When it comes to institutional practices that are normalised, the explanation that is given is simply that someone’s behavior was a danger, and so it was dealt with through a standard process. In other words, it is all put on the ‘dangerous person’- in this case, the child. However, if we look more closely, things are usually more complicated, and the problem is not just a child’s threatening behaviour. This is why these sanctions are used even when there was no actual danger, or there were other more effective ways to contain, and de-escalate the situation without harming anyone. It is also why, despite the efforts of the family, it could be difficult to change things, and the same patterns risks being repeated more and more times.
When incidents like the use of seclusion and restraint are not isolated incidents, but a pattern that keeps happening over and over, probably with very similar scripts every time, it is also important to look at what happens in the long term and how the relationship between the child and others actors evolves.
There may be more going on in terms of power relationships, groups dynamics, institutional culture and life experiences. Also, these relationships and responses could be an expression of broader structures, for example attitudes towards race or disability that are likely to determine certain kinds of responses towards children that are labelled as bad, naughty, or problematic.
The core idea behind this project is that people who have these experiences are key actors for change, and their stories and knowledge matters. Through this research I wish to make space to hear voices, including your advice suggestions for other families in similar situations. What could have helped you? What would help others in similar situations?
The research that I have been conducting shows me that violence, even in its subtlest forms, tends to take some agency away from people. It restricts someone’s ability to act, which can be deeply painful because it also takes some of your dignity with it, too. This is what happens when children are secluded and restrained. It is also what happens when these stories are silenced and made invisible, so that families acting alone do not have enough tools to help their children. Gathering insights from all those who have experienced these incidents in their different roles – as children, parents, witnesses, teachers, security, and more – could help us put together more tools and resources for everyone to respond to these situations more effectively and avoid harm at the same time.
Monica Carrer, PhD