Studying domestic violence in Delaware
Photo courtesy of Angela Hattery September 16, 2022
Undergraduate students supported a research team's community interviews
University of Delaware sophomores Afrin Mirza and Zarah Zurita spent little time lounging around this summer, but it’s clear that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. The students were selected to be Summer Scholars, and were part of a research team that is investigating intimate partner violence among Delawareans, focusing, in particular, on persons of color. The Summer Scholars program, which is now in its 13th year, enables qualified students to perform in-depth research or creative work in partnership with University faculty.
For Mirza and Zurita, this meant long days recording and observing interviews with research participants, learning how to use software to code qualitative data, preparing preliminary findings and analysis, and presenting at an end-of-summer symposium. The Summer Scholars program is both fulltime and intensive.
“I was responsible for transcribing every interview that was conducted in English this summer,” said Mirza, a 19-year-old pursuing an honors degree in biological sciences. “It was a lot of content.” Zurita was charged with transcribing the interviews that were conducted in Spanish.
But, as Zurita was quick to note, neither she nor Mirza had any complaints about the workload. “Summer Scholars was an amazing opportunity to do real-world research,” said Zurita. “I really enjoyed it.”
The duo worked with a research team comprised of principal investigators Angela Hattery, co-director of UD’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender Based Violence; Earl Smith, a professor of women and gender studies; and Patricia Sloane-White, chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies. The team also included Amanda Levering, a UD alumna and senior administrator of the Delaware Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.
“This project is exploring the factors that may be preventing abused Black women in Delaware from seeking help from legal-system institutions when they experience intimate partner violence,” Hattery said. “Thus far, the team has interviewed 27 victims of intimate partner violence and 10 who self-identify as perpetrators.
“We are trying to find out if victims experience higher rates of surveillance after they seek help, including calling 911, seeking an order of protection or testifying in court. For victims who have children, are they more likely to be referred to the Department of Child and Family Services after they seek help? These are the kinds of important questions that our research hopes to answer.”
Zurita said she identifies as Latina.
“This is an issue in my community,” Zurita said. “The machismo culture hides violence; it’s something that isn’t talked about. But if you don’t talk about it, it’s not going to be stopped.”
The 19-year-old sociology major said that she took a class with Smith last year and learned about the opportunity to engage in summer research.
“Based on Zarah’s and Afrin’s performance in class, I identified them as strong candidates for the Summer Scholars program and encouraged them both to apply,” Smith said. “They were a critical part of our research team.”
The team worked with community partners in and around Wilmington and interviews were held at locations easily accessible to the study participants, such as community centers and local libraries.
The nature of the work could be draining, but both students rose to the challenge.
“Conducting immersive, firsthand, and emotionally charged research with survivors and perpetrators of violence requires both sensitivity and resilience,” Sloane-White said. “Afrin and Zarah demonstrated remarkable maturity and insight as they met with vulnerable participants, exploring topics that are sensitive and difficult to talk about.”
For Mirza, the research project opened up interesting conversations with her dad, Khaled Mirza, a Dover-based psychiatrist. She, too, wants to become a physician, but in her case, is leaning toward pediatrics.
“We talked in general terms, without infringing on research participants’ confidentiality, about the implications of victims not seeking help,” she said.
“I know this research project will inform my work as a physician,” Mirza said. “I’ll remember the stories I heard and the experiences of these victims. Intimate partner violence is often hidden. As a doctor, I’ll need to ensure that my patients feel comfortable asking me for help.”
At the end of the 10-week program, Mirza and Zurita participated with other student/scholars in the 13th Undergraduate Research and Service Scholar Celebratory Symposium. During their presentation, they shared preliminary findings that indicate higher rates of negative maternal and child outcomes for Latina and Black women who experience intimate partner violence. The team’s research also indicates that Black and Latina women face higher rates of lethal violence. Among the white women interviewed, partner violence was only one of several issues they were experiencing, along with substance abuse, sex work and homelessness.
“The symposium was a great opportunity to meet other scholars and present our research to an audience unfamiliar with the topic,” Mirza said. “Often research can get lost if not communicated properly. It really made us step outside of our researcher shoes and understand how to convey such information to the general public.”