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A counsellor’s perspective on empowerment strategies for girls and women who have experienced sexual abuse

A counsellor’s perspective on empowerment strategies for girls and women who have experienced sexual abuse

By Kerstin Pullin

**This piece contains references to content that some readers may find upsetting or triggering**

At the end of the recent Bristol Zero Tolerance Film Festival, in a panel discussion, Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset, Sue Mountstevens, talked about the increase in rape incidents in the region.  And indeed, generally the data is dire on the issue of sexual abuse:

  • 72% of victims of sexual exploitation are girls, who experience abuse at home, in school, their community, on social platforms and/or are sexually exploited in gangs and groups
  • Only 1 in 8 child victims of sexual exploitation are identified by experts
  • Over 90% of children having experienced sexual abuse knew the abuser.

It’s because of these shocking statistics and my experience of working with women that had experienced childhood sexual abuse that I started on a research journey as part of my Bachelor in Counselling. I was particularly interested in professionals’ experience of empowerment strategies employed in their work with girls who were vulnerable to or had experienced sexual exploitation. While analysing the data I identified a broad consensus about the urgent need to work collaboratively (children, mental health professionals, public services, etc.) on implementing recommendations to empower girls, through educational and resilience building interventions. However, I also found discrepancies between what governmental bodies and other stakeholders (e.g. parents and children) understood as suitable strategies to empower children and to curb abuse.

With regard to children being at risk of sexual abuse within the family setting, the government (Children’s Commissioner under the umbrella of the Home Office) counted on initiatives such as the Troubled Families Programme to ‘turn around’ those families that are also associated with living on benefits, anti-social behaviour and youth crime, albeit not having taken into account aspects such as poor housing, poverty and parental mental health issues. In contrast to the government’s definition of a ‘troubled family’ Crossley (see references below 2015, pp. 4-7) identified those families as being white, unemployed, struggling with health and living in social accommodation and criticises the lack of evidence in support of this program.

In the educational setting the implementation of empowerment strategies seemed promising. The Children’s Commissioner and the PSHE Association backed by a majority of young people, parents, teachers and business leaders, advocated for the PSHE (Personal, Social, Health, Economic) curriculum to be made compulsory. The continued delivery of the PSHE curriculum equips children with life skills such as sexual and relationship education which had yielded positive outcomes on their emotional resilience (understanding relational power dynamics, equality, sense of self, etc.), school achievements, employability and health and safety (safe sex, knowledge about gender socialisation, grooming methods). Despite this, in early 2016 the UK government refrained from acting on these evidenced based recommendations; effectively exerting it’s power to overrule a majority; henceforth keeping PSHE lessons non-mandatory and jeopardising their own pledge to empower young people and their carers.

In view of these findings, although the empowerment of girls was seen as a key aspect of improving and sustaining their life experiences (e.g. free of gendered sexual abuse); the following competencies were yet to be realised:

  1. Awareness about the impact of political and societal barriers and their contribution to girls’ oppression (gender stereotypes, unmet educational need for respectful communication and safe sexual practice).
  2. Ability to identify and build on girls existing strengths, communicate permission to question authority, provide information on subjects such as self-advocacy and facilitate their drive towards social action.
  3. Adequate funding and coordinated service provision tailored to girls’ mental health needs such as extensive counselling provision (incl. mindfulness, compassion focussed therapy (CFT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)), gender specific support, family support and early education.

The exertion of power over others as described earlier contributes to a sense of disempowerment and silencing of girls that raise their voice about experiences of abuse in various social contexts such as schools and public places. To help professionals (e.g. teachers, social workers and counsellors) working with children and young people to contextualise the relational dynamics in the empowerment process, I integrated person-centred counselling theory into a feminist model of empowerment:

Adapted version of the feminist model of empowerment by Kerstin Pullin 2016

(You can also download a PDF version of the Empowerment Model here)

Professionals (‘power with’) working with children or adults affected by gendered abuse may draw inspiration from strategies advocated for in research and mental health literature to help build rapport and facilitate the empowerment process (e.g. self-efficacy, confidence to speak up):

  • Acquisition of gender sensitive counselling skills to spot signs of distress and abuse
  • Increased awareness about the link between sexism and sexual violence
  • Exploration of gendered power dynamics in the school, community, family context
  • Openness to talk about perceived power dynamics between the girl and the professional and it’s impact on their relationship
  • Acknowledgement of historic forms of gender oppression, it’s effects and prevalence on gendered socialisation processes
  • Provision of consistent, attachment focused support services.
  • Offering support to help identify 1. existing strengths and/or limitations, 2. positive and/or unhelpful social networks 3. individuals or authorities that misuse their power      to control or manipulate individuals in pursuit of their own interests
  • Single sex discussion groups on subjects such as grooming (e.g. controlling methods) and forms of sexual abuse (e.g. sexually demeaning language) that are considerate of the gendered, cultural context and non-blaming language use.
  • Mixed gender discussion groups (“power with” educators, male peers) on the effects of sexual cohesion and abuse (e.g. pressure to self-objectify or perform sexual acts leading to later being shamed as “sluts”) using realistic videos to kickstart the conversation and promote change (“power to”).
  • Developing critical thinking skills (“power within”) to enable pupils to become aware of and voice their perceptions on socially constructed gender norms (e.g. stereotypical views of females and males) and it’s impact on their sense of self (experiencing self-worth depends on fulfilling expectations of others – conditional positive regard).
  • Social activism with it’s links to feminism and counselling, can be understood as a collaborative empowerment tool to build on individuals’ strengths and their aim towards forming mutually empathic support networks.

Therefore, following on from my research I am interested in women, young or old, contacting me to share their survival stories and what they felt helped them to get through their experience. These strategies might inspire other women and girls to reclaim their power within and, who knows, may help empower me to continue my academic journey! Also, with regards to the same old story of underfunded social services aimed at women, I pledge to donate 15% of the income generated from the next five feminist and mental health related workshops I plan to create and present, to Bristol Zero Tolerance.  This is because as much as passionate activists try to keep services affordable, they can’t keep running them without much needed funds.

May I leave you with the following quote by inspirational feminist icon Gloria Steinem:

“Systems of authority undermine our self-authority to secure obedience, thus self-esteem becomes the root of revolution.”

Kerstin Pullin

Counselling Therapist (BSc Hons) in private practice



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