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KU professor works to help IPV survivors

(KWCH)
Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 6:38 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A University of Kansas professor is leading grants that will improve health for survivors of intimate partner violence.

The University of Kansas says one of its researchers is building a body of work composed of publications and grants to better understand risks associated with intimate partner violence and to build an intervention that will improve health outcomes.

Meredith Bagwell-Gray, an assistant professor of social welfare at KU, says she has written a study on sexual health for women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV), as well as leading two grant projects to help survivors.

Bagwell-Gray says as an undergraduate, she heard an activist’s story about contracting HIV as a result of IPV and shortly after she began volunteering at a domestic violence shelter. She says the experience helped her decide she wanted to have a career in helping women overcome abuse.

According to Bagwell-Gray, the early exposure she had and her subsequent social work practice as a domestic violence advocate and therapist has helped her find her dissertation topic, in which she interviewed 28 women about their sexual health and safety strategies during and after experiencing physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their relationships.

Bagwell-Gray says the dissertation has led her to a series of publications, which includes a study she is currently working on in a special issue of the journal Social Work. She says the study focuses on the importance of mainstreaming gender and gender-based violence in the American Academy of Social Work’s “Grand Challenges” which is co-written by Sarah Jen, assistant professor, and Nikolaus Schuetz, doctoral candidate.

According to the team, previous research has focused largely on risk factors for women and IPV but very little on what can be done for those going through it. They say the study examined the importance of using an intersectional lens to understand both sexual risks and resilience when helping survivors recover.

Bagwell-Gray says the research has shown minority women are more likely to experience the negative consequences of IPV and socioeconomic status is closely tied to health outcomes as well. She says respondents spoke of their experiences as women, their personal backgrounds, sexual messages they have received throughout life, sexual health care available to them and their recovery time.

According to Bagwell-Gray, her findings have helped show considering a woman’s gendered experience, along with her intersecting identities, such as age, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, can help form better responses and interventions to help women heal, connect them with sexual health services and better connect services such as abuse services and sexual health. She says they have also been turned into strategies to help serve IPV survivors.

“These women are often caught between sexual pressure on all sides. They face sexual assault and coercion from partners and non-partners alike, unwanted sexual attention and harassment. At the same time, cultural gender norms tell them it’s not OK to have sex or that having sex means they’re promiscuous,” Bagwell-Gray said. “It’s not always comfortable for them to talk about, so we ask about the type of sexual messages they’ve received throughout life and whether they’re helpful or harmful, and then about the types of sexual messages they want to choose for themselves and share back with the world.”

KU says Bagwell-Gray’s research helped lead to an American Cancer Society grant awarded through the University of Kansas Medical Center to help test an intervention method and improve this population’s sexual health outcomes by increasing their cervical health literacy and promoting cervical cancer prevention and screening.

Bagwell-Gray says she is working on the mentored project with Megha Ramaswamy of the KU Medical Center, who has researched cervical cancer and women who have been incarcerated; Ann Coker of the University of Kentucky, who researches connections between domestic abuse and cervical cancer and Jody Brook, associate professor and director of KU’s Center for Children and Families. She says Midson Noyes and Haley Cooper, both spring 2020 KU graduates, contributed as research assistants.

“It is really important to acknowledge my team and their contribution to the research,” Bagwell-Gray said. “My mentors have this wealth of knowledge and experience I can draw from, and my student researchers provided exciting new insights.”

Bagwell-Gray says she designed an intervention method based on her research which she wants to help improve health literacy about cervical cancer and improve access to preventative services. She says her team recruited 30 women in Kansas and Missouri to take the intervention and see if their cervical literacy improves and what preventive actions can be taken, such as getting an HPV vaccine.

According to Bagwell-Gray, the project is also assessing barriers to recruitment and feasibility of its strategies. She says the grant has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she is gathering data in the meantime and wants to test her methods on a larger scale.

Bagwell-Gray says she also recently received a new grant from the KU Office of Research to broaden the focus of her intervention method and deliver it beyond small-group in-person settings. She says women she involved in the first intervention said they wished they had learned the information at a younger age which is why the new project is focusing on women from 18-26 and will also look at some of the main barriers to accessing the intervention such as time and distance.

According to the researcher, several women were unable to attend the intervention because they could not attend sessions due to family responsibilities or travel distance. She says the new grant will help transition the intervention to a virtual format that can be delivered via an app.

Bagwell-Gray says she will work with a community advisory board made up of domestic violence survivors, advocates, health providers and tech intervention experts to develop a platform for the intervention.

“The timing is perfect,” Bagwell-Gray said of the grant. “The purpose of this project is to transition the intervention to an online, app-based platform that people can use on their own time from wherever they are. While the previous project has been put on hold, we can gather data for this virtually.”

Bagwell-Gray says together, the projects will help inform effectiveness of interventions, and the ultimate goal is to develop an intervention that can be tested on a much broader scale. She says she wanted to eventually make the intervention available to shelters and agencies nationwide that help women suffering from IPV improve their sexual health and reduce rates of cervical cancer and other negative outcomes that result from violence.

“Much of my work grew from working in shelters and seeing that women’s sexual health needs were often unmet,” Bagwell-Gray said. “By the time I was doing my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to form an intervention to help women beyond small groups, and I’m grateful I get to do that.”

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