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Empowerment - What this means in a trauma-informed domestic abuse service


“Empowerment”… That’s a word we hear used quite a lot, isn’t it? But what does it really mean… In particular, what does it mean in a feminist, trauma-informed domestic abuse service? AND why is this word sooo important to CASWA?

Let’s get the definitions out of the way first.

As a noun, empowerment simply means: “the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you; the process of giving a group of people more freedom or rights”.

As a verb, the word empower mean: “to give someone official authority or the freedom to do something; to encourage and support the ability to do something” or…

Let’s be honest: the word POWER is a loaded word! Often it is a word we shy away from. It comes loaded with responsibility, ideas of being “in charge”, rule making, a sense of importance, of being front and center. For many of us, it is a resounding, “oh no, that isn’t for me!”. We often think of the word in relation to other people, having power over someone else. In domestic abuse this is exactly what happens. Every experience of domestic abuse is of course different and unique, but all abusive relationships follow a pattern and this pattern always has power and control at its centre. Power and control in a relationship looks like all those things above: one person in the relationship is more important than the other, one person is “in charge”, has all the say, makes all the decisions. It is a bit like micro-management – endless rules to adhere to and every move, every behaviour tracked and looked at under a microscope. Essentially this person has all the power and control and this is achieved very, very gradually through numerous control tactics which seek to intimidate, manipulate, isolate, abuse, scare and harm.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Oh I’d never let someone treat me like that”. That is a whole other conversation for another day. But it is always worth remembering: abusive relationships don’t ALWAYS start out abusive. Power and control is gained very gradually, often very subtly.

Let’s turn our focus back to the word empower and think about it in a simplistic and relatable way: the pandemic, specifically lockdown. We had so little power and control over our lives during the pandemic. Restrictions were put on who we saw and where we went. Our behaviours, movement, lifestyles, work life, family life, friendships, leisure time changed. Our choices became extremely limited and while this was essential as a response to a pandemic, this was not an empowering time for us a society. When we reflect on the reality of the impact of the pandemic on our day-to-day lives, it gives perhaps a very tiny indication of what life can be like living with domestic abuse. Sadly, the pandemic has been an extremely triggering time for those who had experienced domestic abuse for this very reason - it brought back traumatic memories.

Acknowledgement of the reality of domestic abuse and how it significantly affects all aspects of day to day life is why the word empower is important to us. Women, children and young people who experience domestic abuse have lived a life of extreme and intense power and control. CASWA’s role and goal, quite simply, is to give some of the power and control back and to support people to regain ownership of their lives. Our working practice aims to model healthy relationships, to really listen to (and believe) what they have experienced in their relationships, to support the women, children and young people who use our service to understand their choices and options. We aim to support people to take back ownership of their lives by walking alongside service users on their journey, as a passenger on this journey. We support women, children and young people to have their voice heard, to experience being listened to and heard, to trust their decision-making, re-learn “who am I?”, experience respect from another human being, build resilience, re-build self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-worth, gain confidence, be informed about their rights, learn about relationships and explore their experience when they are really.

It is crucial for empowering working practice to highlight strengths, promote participation and inclusion at every opportunity. As domestic abuse specialists, we have a role and responsibility to be critical, mindful and reflective of our working practice and our role, influence and impact on a person’s life. When we are able to have self-knowledge and strong intrapersonal skills we are able to work collaboratively and truly see others in their own world.

Quite often it can be tempting to want to swoop in/”rescue” and “take care” of a situation, to want to help by just doing everything but it is really important to consider and understand why this is not empowering. As CASWA, we see our role in our work with individuals as being a passenger on their support journeys, not the driver. We don’t support people at CASWA to create dependencies on us. Sometimes it might even come across that we’re not doing “enough” – but this deserves a critical lens. The very best day for us is the day people can move on from their support. As much as we love supporting and working with people – the biggest reward is watching their confidence grow and witness them taking power back and gaining control of their life again.

To empower isn’t to:

  • Do everything for someone to be “helpful”;
  • Make decisions for someone;
  • Adopt an “I know what’s best for you” attitude/approach;
  • dismiss feelings and thoughts
  • exclude or discriminate against individuals
  • dehumanize or devalue people

Taking ownership, regaining your own power...

In a blog post where we talk about empowerment, it is important not to forget to mention how we can all become more empowered in our own lives. Here are some ideas:

  • Honour your needs and look after yourself - day to day and longer term (the little things add up!).
  • Explore the question, "who am I?" and spend time getting to know yourself.
  • Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion.
  • Set and enforce boundaries.
  • Prioritise you (this includes saying no when you need and want to).
  • Be mindful of the company you keep.
  • Be informed (from knowing your rights to anything else relevant to you).
  • Advocate for yourself, or find someone (or an organisation) who can
  • Trust your instincts