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Psychology of Women and Equalities Section

Using feminist psychology to tackle violence against women and girls

25 November 2021 | by Psychology of Women and Equalities Section

To mark the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, members of the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women and Equalities Section have shared their views on the issue of violence against women and girls, the government’s proposed strategy to tackle it and how feminist psychology can play its part.

We aren’t the first feminist psychologists to be looking at how our work and expertise can be utilised to look for solutions to the issue of violence against women and girls.

Feminist psychology has always been good at casting a critical eye over systems, institutions, and policies that perpetuate these issues.

Feminist psychologists share a history of highlighting less privileged voices, and change and shifts in society have often come out of feminist groups and grassroots activism.

The issue of violence against women and girls has been thrust even further into the spotlight this year following the horrific cases of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Sarah Everard, and Sabina Nessa.

Earlier this year, the UK government published a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. Published after a public consultation, the strategy offers different policy proposals and ideas for how to tackle the problem of violence against women and girls.

There are numerous problematic issues with the strategy and the consultation process more widely. However, one of our biggest concerns and disappointments is that it fails to look at the role and function of power and the structural dynamics that underpin violence against women and girls and that enables violence to take place.

Currently the focus is on ‘individual’ violence, for example, the act of one person using violence against another, without looking at the wider systems and structures in place. The government is proposing sticking-plaster solutions to address huge societal issues.

Feminist psychology can help to understand the complexities of violence against women and girls and help to promote a society that is not accepting of these behaviours. Specifically, feminist psychologists have pointed out time and time again that violence is situated within power relations, which means violence impacts women and girls differently based on their position within these relations.

It is therefore important that responses to violence examine these power relations and consider their specific impacts when supporting women and girls.

These power relations also determine whose voices and experiences of violence are prioritised when we talk about violence.

For example, in our review of the latest government strategy, we highlighted a failure to address violence against trans women and refugees, despite an ongoing and urgent need for resources and services for these populations. Therefore, it is always important to examine who is – and who is not - included in the category of ‘women and girls’.

Using this kind of broad language suggests we are speaking about all women and girls, when typically, this is not the case. It also suggests that ‘women and girls’ are a homogeneous category, which is also not the case. Again, these are not new observations.

What we need is for government and policy makers to listen to the voices of feminist psychologists and engage with knowledge and evidence that exists already.

Currently, by constantly asking for people’s views via consultations and surveys, there is a danger that we erase evidence that already exists, which has been built over decades.

Getting the views of the public is not a bad thing per se, but continuing to gather more evidence, using limited methods, risks perpetuating a narrative that we don’t know anything about violence against women and girls, when we already know a lot - the research and evidence is there, it just needs to be consulted and used to inform policy and decision-making.

There are many issues with some of the proposed ‘solutions’ in the government’s violence against women and girls strategy. ‘Solutions’ such as anti-drink spiking kits, volunteer taxi marshals, and surveillance when women phone the police, as funded by the recent Safety of Women at Night government fund, all send the message that the onus is on women to keep themselves safe.

It’s clear that none of these initiatives have been developed by asking survivors what they want. These are simplistic measures that fail to recognise the complexities that we are talking about, and reinforce the myths around violence against women – for example, ‘stranger danger’ and rape myths.

The way we speak about violence against women and girls is so critical. Currently, we have some very powerful dominant discourses in society such as ‘boys will be boys’, and the sexual predator discourse which attributes sexual violence to a few ‘monstrous’ men.

These discourses serve to paint violence in over-simplistic terms, and such narratives need to be dismantled and challenged.

So, what else can we do and what would we like to see happen?

We want to see the government draw upon the evidence base that is already there: The evidence that tells us and helps explain why many people don’t disclose instances of sexual abuse or violence and rarely report them.

The evidence tells us that for many victims, justice for them is far more complex than simply criminal justice: It’s about being understood and having their experiences recognised and treated with dignity.

The conviction rates for sexual assault and rape are already appalling, so why is it widely perceived that criminal justice that is the only solution?

This assumption is particularly naïve when we consider issues of police violence and violence in the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system currently plays into re-victimisation, and evidence shows us that many women have experienced the system itself as violent, traumatising, and oppressive. We would like to see this overhauled.

We’d also like to see a focus on alternative ways of doing justice like restorative or transformative justice.

Programmes that look at alternative solutions need proper funding, instead of short-term funding cycles that are competitively bid for, which results in services that launch, get off the ground, and then close when the funding ends, often within a very short time-frame.

This makes it difficult to collect substantial evidence about effectiveness, and it means it is unlikely that people who access these services will receive robust, continued support.

Additionally, initiatives like these need to be better supported by the evidence base and rigorously evaluated in order to gauge their impact.

What we are discussing is not anything new. As feminist psychologists we have been talking about this for decades.

We know that violence is an organising feature of global societies. To address violence in its complexities, we need serious efforts to recognise the omni-presence of violence, understand how it operates, and develop evidence-based strategies to support those who are impacted.

In 1999 the UN General Assembly designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

The government needs to draw upon the evidence and expertise available from feminist psychology to ensure we aren’t still talking about the same issues 22 years from now.

- Dr Tanya Beetham, Dr Emma Turley, Dr Lisa Lazard, Lois Catrin Donnelly, Dr Lucy Thompson


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