Do you know what “gaslighting” is?

Written by Maria Hartl, Senior Technical Specialist - Gender and Social Equity, IFAD/PTA

Have you ever heard about gaslighting? You are not alone if you wonder what it has to do with gender-based violence.   None of the participants in a lunchtime seminar organized by PTA and the IFAD medical team on “violence is everyone’s problem”  knew that the term explains what is happening in abusive relationships.   

The seminar took place under the umbrella of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.  This global campaign to raise awareness about gender-based violence and respect of human rights started on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November) and runs until Human Rights Day (10 December). Dr Flavia Donati (staff counsellor),  Kim Harvey (IFAD Nurse) and Dr Hayford Etteh (medical adviser)  advised staff how to recognize symptoms of gender-based violence and how to act and react

According to  Dr Flavia Donati, gaslighting describes a form of psychological abuse where a victim is manipulated into insanity, doubting memory and perception. It goes back to the 1944 Hitchcock thriller Gaslight, which was adapted from Patrick Hamilton's 1938 novel.  There a husband slowly manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane. He is dimming the lights which were powered by gas, then denying that the lights have changed when the wife wonders what is going on. Gaslighting usually happens gradually in a relationship and may seem harmless at first.  Abuse can be physical and psychological. One partner is driving the other slowly but steadily into a confused state of mind, where the victim does not know anymore what is right or wrong.  This leads to isolation, disorientation, depression and fragility.  The victim starts to doubt about perceptions and feelings, feels trapped and cannot talk about it.  He or she starts to feel ashamed because she cannot leave the perpetrator and also tries to protect the aggressor.

What can we do if we see a close friend, family member or colleague showing symptoms of gaslighting?  The most important thing is to listen, show compassion and tell them where to get help. We should not try to give advice about what to do.  What help would it be to say “Just leave“ if we don’t know what is really going on in the relationship?  It is important to understand that the victim cannot change the perpetrator, only his or her own behaviour and attitude towards the abuser. Kim Harvey (IFAD Nurse) shared a poster by the medical service with useful addresses and phone numbers of where to get help. It  will be posted at various locations in IFAD. 

Mame Adama Diagne, Director of Ethics said that IFAD as an organization had a responsibility to care for its staff and prevent abuse. Dr Hayford Etteh (medical adviser) highlighed how important it was to involve more men who are not only perpetrators, but also victims of violence.

Participants also discussed how gender-based violence women is a global phenomenon that knows no borders.  It can affect rich and poor and occur at any stage in our lives. We may witness it ourselves, or with our loved ones,  our sisters, mothers, wives, partners, daughters, friends and colleagues.   Most important is not to let it happen!  We invite all to support the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.