Working to understand and prevent intimate partner violence

Millan AbiNader, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, explains how she approaches social work as a ‘macro’ social worker, and the importance of community and connection in addressing structural factors and social ecology of gender-based violence.

A long-time advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, Millan AbiNader is a mixed-methods researcher and macro social worker who seeks to understand how systems and communities affect individuals’ experiences of gender-based violence. AbiNader, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), began working as a victim services advocate as a college student and aims to stay connected to those roots as she leads research that supports survivor healing and perpetrator change.

Millan AbiNader presenting next to a screen.
Assistant Professor of Social Work Millan AbiNader. (Image: Courtesy of the School of Social Policy & Practice)

AbiNader describes her approach to social work as being a “macro” social worker, someone whose work focuses on systems and policies and the running of programs and institutions. While a lot of schools of social work are very clinical, she says, SP2 and Penn offer an opportunity to be in an interdisciplinary space that considers macro-level factors.

“When I was working with survivors, particularly the survivors who were incarcerated, I watched people try to heal and change their lives, and I watched their partners also try to do the same. But they experienced barriers that had nothing to do with how hard they were trying, or the great work that they were doing to heal,” she says. “There was system, after system, after system making things harder for them. I wanted to go back to school to better understand systems and institutions so that I could develop new ways for them to support people’s abilities to heal and change.”

AbiNader explains the different kinds of systems that are creating barriers for people to find healing and change.

“All forms of systemic oppression—poverty, racism, ableism, sexism—all of those trickle down into our institutions and make it very hard for people to progress. We know that people of color, male victims, trans victims, LGBTQ victims, and others with minoritized identities are often less believed in our legal and health systems. Oppression is a large macro factor that’s affecting people.”

“Policies can be another barrier,” she adds. “For example, the criteria for obtaining a protection order may exclude individuals who do not fit traditional definitions of an intimate partner.”

AbiNader highlights the importance of connection and community in her work. “One of the most important things about my work is that it stays grounded in my practice experience and the lived experiences of the people who are involved in intimate partner violence and gender-based partner violence more broadly. I try to make connections with local agencies that are doing this work, seeking input and ensuring my efforts align with the realities of advocates and survivors.”

“Practice experience and connection to community organizations are both really important to me, but I also think it’s what makes social work, social work,” AbiNader says. “We’re not just trying to create knowledge for knowledge’s sake; we’re asking questions that are relevant to communities, creating answers that work in communities, and supporting communities as they implement these strategies.”

This story is by Carson Easterly. Read more at SP2 News.