Tips for Women and Girls Empowerment Groups
Many organizations that work to empower girls have great intentions around trying to increase safety for girls and prevent sexual assault and dating violence. However, this is a very nuanced topic. It is really important to choose words carefully in order to avoid inadvertently blaming girls for violence perpetrated against them. A major goal is to increase the likelihood that girls will feel comfortable coming forward to seek help and the way we talk about these issues will drive those decisions. Here are some tips to help advocates of women and girls’ empowerment groups and programs approach their work in a way that effectively addresses the root causes of relationship abuse and sexual violence.
Choose Words Wisely
These tips are based on actual language we have seen on some girls empowerment websites.
- Do not say: we are striving to give women the “strength” or “courage” to leave her abuser; this ignores the many real barriers to leaving she may face. These include financial isolation, children’s safety, and the fact that intimate partner violence usually escalates when the survivor leaves the relationship. In fact, 75% of domestic violence-related deaths occur at that time (Department of Justice, 2000.) Make women and girls’ safety your priority and reflect this in your language.
- When discussing the prevalence of relationship abuse and the barriers to leaving, Do NOT use phrases such as “victims are afraid to venture out on their own” or “victims lack the courage and self-esteem needed to leave the relationship”. The ability to leave an abusive relationship is not about courage, but about being able to access resources and navigate the safety risks imposed by the perpetrator. For more information, please see Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship.
- Do not call awareness programs “prevention.” Prevention programming will strive to change the gender dynamics and social norms that condone and support gender violence. Prevention programming will primarily be aimed at boys and will seek to counter the cultural messages that support the objectification of women and idealization of violence, entitlement and masculinity. Such programming could also aim to empower women politically in order to advance women’s interests in the public sphere.
Awareness is Not the Same as Prevention
Though it is helpful to build awareness about sexual assault and relationship abuse and provide women and girls with safety tips, it is imperative to remember that this awareness building is not the same as prevention. Prevention requires addressing the root causes of relationship abuse and sexual assault. Prevention must acknowledge that the vast majority of relationship and sexual violence is perpetrated by men and against women and must address the factors that cause men to choose to abuse.
Examples of Awareness:
- Tip sheets for women including: “watch your drink at parties because of roofies”, “do not walk alone at night”, etc.
- Training on the warning signs of relationship abuse
- Training on how to help a friend who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence
- Self defense classes
Examples of Prevention:
- Training men on how to intervene as a bystander and hold peers accountable when they witness relationship abuse and/or sexual assault
- Adult men mentoring young boys on how to have healthy relationships
- Training boys on how to recognize the promotion of problematic notions of masculinity and the objectification of women in the media
- Information for parents on how to talk to their adolescents about healthy dating relationships
While many girls and women may enjoy and feel empowered by self-defense training or activities aimed to improve self-confidence, these types of programming do not address the root causes of relationship abuse or sexual assault. When we frame this programming as “prevention”, we imply that women’s choices and actions leave them partially to blame for the violent crimes committed against them. Suggesting that women suffer high rates of relationship abuse and sexual violence due to a lack of confidence or courage unfairly blames them for their victimization. Acknowledge that gender violence is the result of the perpetrator’s choice to abuse, and use that frame to guide your recommendations for reducing the prevalence of relationship abuse and sexual assault.