New Research: Exploring the role of adult social workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities

By Beth Tarleton and Gillian MacIntyre

Made with photo symbols (see credit below)

The lives of parents with learning disabilities have been given increasing attention by policy makers and practitioners in recent years and there has been a growing awareness of their particular support needs and the barriers they face in parenting their children.

We have both carried out research in this area for around 20 years and during that time we have witnessed changes in awareness, knowledge and understanding of, and attitudes towards, parents with learning disabilities. We believe that this is partly the result of the prominence given to the rights of people with disabilities to have a family life and children, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  This has been accompanied by a growing body of research on the lives of families with learning disabilities and there are a number of things we now know about these families.  Firstly, they are likely to be over-represented in the child protection system and are much less likely to have their children living with them.  Secondly, these families are likely to face a number of barriers that prevent them from undertaking their parenting role effectively and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we know that parents with learning disabilities can, and do, parent their children when appropriate support is in place.

We also have a really good sense of what the right support looks like for parents with learning disabilities and guidance around supported parenting is available for practitioners across the UK (see link below).  Good support often involves early identification and intervention at an early stage to work in a preventative manner with families to help develop and support parenting capacity.  Good practice also involves paying attention to communication, thinking about how complex information can be shared with parents in a clear and accessible way. Support via parenting programmes to help parents develop their parenting skills can also be useful, particularly when these have been adapted to suit the needs of people with learning disabilities. We know that parents with learning disabilities benefit from having tasks broken down and repeated and, ideally, that support should take place in their own home or in an environment in which parents are familiar. The assessment of parenting capacity should take place using specialist assessment tools that take the needs of parents with learning disabilities into account. When assessing parenting capacity, parents should be made aware that an assessment is taking place and the assessment should take place over an extended period of time to allow parents to develop their skills. Parents with learning disabilities also benefit from additional support from advocacy services who can support parents to understand complex information as well as ensuring that parents have the opportunity to have their voices heard in a range of different settings.

We know that often professional involvement in the lives of parents with learning disabilities centres around child protection concerns. At this stage, statutory timescales often mean that parents do not have the opportunity to develop or demonstrate parenting capacity.  Much of the research that has taken place in this area has centred around the child protection process and has considered the role of children and families social workers. Other research has focused on the role of nurses, midwives and advocacy workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities.  This leaves a gap in our knowledge around the role of adult and/or learning disability social workers in supporting parents with learning disabilities.  We know very little about how they understand and experience their role including the skills and knowledge base they draw on to work with and support parents with learning disabilities.

To address this gap in our knowledge we have been awarded funding by NIHR SSCR to explore in more detail the role of adult and learning disability social workers working with parents with learning disabilities. We hope to identify areas of good practice that we can learn from, developing shared learning and development across the sector.  We will work with Research in Practice and SpeakUp Rotherham to develop:

  • A focused briefing document for LAs regarding the development of policies/protocols to support parents with LD which also details the knowledge social workers need and the training they require.
  • An outline policy document on support for parents with LD which can be adapted and used by LAs.
  • Run, with Research in Practice, two half day webinars.
  • An easy read briefing and short film for parents about getting support in their own right.

We will do this by engaging with a number of key stakeholders including parents, social workers and policy makers. We will approach this in a range of different ways including a policy analysis, focus groups and interviews to better understand the role of adult social workers in this complex area of practice.  We look forward to working with our colleagues in the practice community over the next year or so.

Beth Tarleton is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. Beth is co-ordinator of the Working Together with Parents network which is a free network that supports professionals working with parents with learning difficulties/learning disabilities. Beth has many years of experience of carrying out research with parents with learning disabilities.

Gillian MacIntyre is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Strathclyde. She has many years of experience of carrying out research with parents with learning disabilities.


This blog reports on independent research funded by the National Institute for Health & Care Research, School for Social Care Research. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR SSCR, the National Institute for Health & Care Research, nor the Department of Health and Social Care. About NIHR SSCR | NIHR SSCR

Further information:

Recent publications:

MacIntyre G, Stewart A, McGregor S. The double-edged sword of vulnerability: Explaining the persistent challenges for practitioners in supporting parents with intellectual disabilities. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil. 2019 Nov;32(6):1523-1534. doi: 10.1111/jar.12647. Epub 2019 Jul 18. PMID: 31318123.

Tarleton, B., Turney, D. Understanding ‘Successful Practice/s’ with Parents with Learning Difficulties when there are Concerns about Child Neglect: the Contribution of Social Practice Theory. Child Ind Res 13, 387–409 (2020).

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“I was pleased to be able to use my learning, and the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.”

In this blog, we catch up with Flora Miles, a Bristol graduate and newly qualifed Social Worker. She was recently invited to present her dissertation at an event organised by the University of Bath to mark World Social Work Day 2022, celebrating recent developments in practice, activism and research.

Here she talks about the findings of her research along with her experiences of the masters programme:

Flora Miles

After completing my undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology, I wanted to further focus my skills and knowledge towards helping people live fulfilled and empowered lives. I was inspired by social workers who I had encountered through my voluntary experience with charities. The Masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol offered me a great opportunity, building on my previous studies and some experience which I had gained through volunteering. The course was highly rated and I was excited at the opportunity to study in Bristol, which is a city I did not know well before the course and have now become very fond of!

I found the programme varied and engaging. Teaching on a range of topics by faculty members was supplemented by interesting guest lectures. My learning was supported by the knowledgeable and generous members of the service user and carer forum who, through appearances at lectures and in small group workshops, helped us keep service users and carers at the centre of our learning. One of my favourite things about the course was my fellow social work students, who were interesting and friendly people with a breadth of experiences from which I learned a lot and gained treasured friendships.

“Work placements…expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!”

I undertook my first practice placement with Exeter Homelessness Partnership at CoLab in Exeter, where I live. I loved this experience in the voluntary sector, during which I met some brilliant people and learned so much about creativity and resilience. Unfortunately, the covid pandemic began during the early stages of this placement, leading to a change of plans in which my placement was suspended. Luckily, I gained employment as a project worker with CoLab’s Resilient Women project and as a mental health support worker with Rethink Mental Illness. The university supported me to take learning and reflection opportunities from this employment, which allowed me to progress to the second year of the Masters. This was a very challenging time requiring much flexibility and adaptation from myself and the university, but I am proud to say that we got through it and that I gained valuable experiences. A key takeaway for me was to expect the unexpected and respond with creativity!

My second placement was with Devon County Council, in an adult safeguarding team and a community health and social care team. I was pleased to have this experience in a statutory setting, following my experience in the voluntary sector in first year. This placement was invaluable for my learning regarding the principles and processes at the heart of social work in a local authority, where many social workers are employed. I was helped by committed and supportive social workers as my practice educator and supervisor, who were role models to me. This placement was very useful, especially as I have gone on to work for Devon County Council and therefore continue to directly apply context-specific learning gained while on placement.

“My dissertation has stuck with me powerfully, and opened up opportunities…”

One of my favourite parts of the Social Work Masters was writing a dissertation. It was a real challenge but I grew and learned a lot through it. My dissertation was entitled  Mental Capacity in cases of Self-Neglect: A Thematic Analysis of Safeguarding Adults Reviews in England. I became fascinated by topics of mental capacity in adults throughout my studies at Bristol. With the help of my supervisor, I identified that looking at mental capacity in cases of self-neglect would be especially interesting. Having read some Safeguarding Adults Reviews throughout my studies, I wanted to become more familiar with these documents and see what they could teach us.

Three key findings emerged from my dissertation:

  1. People at risk of self-neglect were let down when professionals failed to assess mental capacity
  2. Safeguarding processes failed to protect people who were found to have capacity to make self-care decisions
  3. Assessments needed more nuance and scope to account for the complexity of mental capacity

These findings enabled me to make recommendations for social care practitioners, team managers, policy makers, those involved in the commissioning and creation of Safeguarding Adults Reviews, and researchers.

My learning from researching for and writing my dissertation has stuck with my powerfully, and opened up opportunities. One such opportunity was being invited to speak on my findings at an event to celebrate World Social Work Day 2022 organised by the University of Bath. It was a pleasure to speak alongside other practitioners, researchers, and educators. I am proud of the presentation I gave, having received positive feedback including social work educators asking to share my findings with their students and practitioners telling me that they would use the findings to inform future work with people at risk of self-neglect. I was very pleased to be able to use my learning, and all the opportunities the Social Work Masters gave me, to influence future social work practice in my own career and beyond.

The masters in Social Work at the University of Bristol was challenging, however I am grateful to be the social worker I am today because of it. I would recommend the course to anybody looking to learn a lot, meet passionate people, and take steps into a social work career.

Find out more about our MSc Social Work programme and what makes our joint professional and academic practice award unique.


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Four Black women who have advanced human rights

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/ Michael Buholzer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Zibah Nwako, University of Bristol and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, University of Bristol

Around the world, the activism of Black women has been instrumental in shaping social justice agendas and promoting human rights. Their work has improved the health and welfare of women and girls, protected the environment and elevated the voices of the oppressed, both in their communities and further afield.

As researchers who focus on women and children’s wellbeing and rights, we have come across the work of many such Black women. The four introduced here are inspirational – for the changes they brought about, for their work ethic, and for their passion to improve the everyday lives of marginalised or oppressed groups.

Efua Dorkenoo

Ghanaian-British women’s rights activist Efua Dorkenoo (1949-2014) was a pioneering leader in the global movement to end female genital cutting.

Portrait photograph of woman
Efua Dorkenoo. Lindsay Mgbor for DFID, Department for International Development, UK/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

As reported in The Guardian’s obituary of Dorkenoo, it was while working as a staff nurse at London hospitals that she learned of the medical complications faced by women who had undergone the practice.

In 1983, she co-founded the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development, a women’s rights organisation which works to stop violence against women and girls.

She also became the World Health Organization’s first technical expert on female genital cutting.

Marielle Franco

Brazilian human rights activist Marielle Franco (1979-2018) drew on her experiences growing up in Maré, a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, to campaign for the rights of favela residents, many of whom are Black. Much of her activism focused on addressing police violence and military intervention in the favelas.

Woman speaking to crowd
Marielle Franco. Mídia NINJA/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Franco’s campaigns on these issues, as well as her work to improve the lives of poor Black women in the favelas, made her one of the most-voted-for members of Rio city council’s 2016 local elections. She was assassinated less than two years later. Her legacy has ensured that four women closely connected to her have also recently been elected to political office.

Wangari Maathai

Professor Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), a Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist, was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. From her previous training and practice in veterinary anatomy, she came to recognise the connection between environmental degradation, poverty and conflict. In particular, through her work she saw the negative impact of environmental degradation on the lives of women who were the main producers of food in this context.

Woman standing speaking into microphone
Wangari Maathai. The-time-line/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Recognising that these conditions resulted in more drought, loss of biodiversity and increased poverty, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. The focus of this movement is on poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. By 2004, the movement had expanded to over 30 countries and has now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya alone.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian economist and politician Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to be appointed as director-general of the World Trade Organization.

Woman dressed in blue
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos. World Economic Forum / Boris Baldinger/Flickr, CC BY-NC

She worked previously as a development economist at the World Bank, where she led several projects that provided support to low-income countries during the global financial crisis of 2007-08 and the world food price crisis of 2008-09.

As two-time finance minister of Nigeria, she worked to reduce corruption.

She has supported young people in Nigeria by launching programmes such as Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria, which has helped women to gain skills and employment. She has written several books and is the co-author of Women and Leadership: Real Life, Real Lessons, published in 2020.

There are many more women that are creating change in diverse ways in their communities or beyond, often in the face of great adversity. We encourage you to look around your local community and find more Black women to add to our list.The Conversation

Zibah Nwako, Senior Research Associate in Education, University of Bristol and Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, Senior Lecturer in Global Childhoods and Welfare, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Diversity and Representation. Does having a mayoral system make a difference?

Polling station
Image credit: Elliott Stallion, UNSPLASH

Natasha Carver is a lecturer in International Criminology at the School for Policy Studies and a member of the specialist research institute Migration Mobilities Bristol. Carver wrote the 2012 report “The Right Man for Bristol?” Gender Representation and the Mayor of Bristol.

This article is part of Bristol Ideas’ Referendum 2022 debate which looks at all aspects of city governance as part of ongoing work on democracy and the forthcoming May 2022 referendum.

Ten years ago, in the run up to the first mayoral election, Bristol Fawcett Society produced a report which documented shocking levels of representational inequality across political leadership in the city (The Right Man for Bristol?” Gender, Representation and the Mayor of Bristol). A pitiful 17 (24 per cent) of the 70 members of Bristol Council were female, significantly worse than the national average in local government, which itself was a poor reflection of the population. Ethnic diversity was limited to just three (four per cent) Asian-heritage councillors, despite the census returns showing 13.5 per cent in the city identifying as non-white, many of them as African-Caribbean, Black British or African. Voter turnout records showed that those from wealthier neighbourhoods were twice as likely to vote than those from the more deprived areas. In the public and private sectors things were no better, in fact they were considerably worse. Not only were the vast majority of public-sector organisations and private-sector employers led by white men, but so too their boards: ten of the largest employers in Bristol had boards comprised entirely of men.

Bristol lagged woefully behind the national picture: its claim to be a diverse, progressive city was entirely undermined by the cabal of wealthy white men who held power and seemed unwilling to make space for others – even when it came to statues of slave traders.

But that was ten years ago. As we all know, the people of the city took it into their own hands to put the statue where it belonged. And while we debate what if anything should be put up in its place, change has already taken place in City Hall: the number of female councillors has risen from 17 to 32 (46 per cent); the number of ethnic minority councillors (excluding white minorities) from three to nine (13 per cent), not including the mayor himself.

But does this success story have anything to do with the post of the elected mayor? Both mayors have been male in accordance with the script across England and Wales, where it seems people continue to think that they must find ‘the Right Man’ for the job – or as the former Prime Minister David Cameron put it when he inaugurated the mayoral system, ‘our dream is to have real heavyweight, influential figures [like] Boris’ (laugh or cry quietly into your cup of tea over that one).

However, it was George Ferguson who signed the European Charter for Equality of women and men in local life on behalf of the city, and Marvin Rees who launched a Commission for Race Equality (CRE). The former led to the founding of the Bristol Women’s Commission (BWC) which made increasing women’s participation in public life one of their top priorities, while the latter broadened the reach through the Stepping Up programme aimed at increasing diversity in senior leadership across the public and private sectors.

The work of BWC and the CRE has made an enormous difference, but it also requires those who hold power to accept that things need to change.

Back in 2012, we reported that despite achievements nationally, men were staunchly over-represented among Labour and Liberal Democrat party councillors in Bristol; the level of female councillors for the Conservative Party was lower than the low national figures; and only the Greens, who had just two councillors, were bucking the trend. In our report we argued that ‘the three main political parties of Bristol City Council are all under-performing in relation to equality and diversity and it is incumbent on them to consider strategies and means for improvement.’

The national picture has not changed. In 2019, the Fawcett Society published research which showed that women’s representation in local government was ‘at a standstill’: just 35 per cent of councillors were female, and progress in this area has been so slow that in 2021 the Fawcett Society calculated that it would take until 2077 to reach gender equality.

But in Bristol, following the admirable efforts of BWC, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party took these criticisms on board and put women and ethnic minority candidates in seats where they actually stood a chance of winning. The Conservatives, meanwhile, continue to operate as though they are living in the 1890s (when the statue of Colston was erected).


Would there have been real change if the post of the mayor hadn’t existed? It seems unlikely, with all the political wrangling needed to bring about change in a council system. But then if the mayor had been Conservative then it seems even less likely that his cabinet would look remotely like the current one.

The extent to which this is a lasting change and will survive either a change of mayor or the end of the mayoral system is, however, dependent not on how you cast your vote in the referendum, but on changing the way politics is financed, organised and conducted. We argued in 2012 that the three factors which limited diversity in public office were caring responsibilities, cash and culture. With regard to the first two of these – as the BWC have recently documented through a survey of female councillors leaving office (some after just one term) – it costs time and money to campaign for office, things that women and ethnic minority people are still often short of in comparison to white men.

More problematic, however, is the culture of politics. Based on analysis of data from 2015-18, Local Government Chronicle found that formal grievances involving bullying and harassment by council staff had increased by 7.5 per cent. Bristol Council was among the worst with 40 complaints over the three-year period. Despite efforts to change this culture, complaints about what the former Leader of the Greens, Ani Stafford-Townsend, called ‘nasty and bullying sexism’ continue to be made.

In addition to the internal masculinist culture, women and ethnic minority people in public life are increasingly subject to misogyny and race hate on social media. This has been found to be the major factor preventing women from taking up roles in public life and driving out those who already have public roles. It’s hard not to see social media as an amplified echo chamber of the sexist culture of politics. A ‘heavyweight’ may have been the stereotype of ‘the right man’ for the job in 2012, but the era of the dinosaurs is over. If we stick with the mayoral system, then perhaps this time we can think about choosing the right person for the job.

Originally published on Bristol Ideas.

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Situating Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’ in the child welfare policy context in Nigeria

Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, illuminates a succession of horrific crimes committed by one man against his children and his wife. Its publication in the UK in 2003 coincided with the passage of the Child Rights Act in Nigeria. Reading Purple Hibiscus against this policy and legal backdrop raises numerous questions about child welfare policies and practices in Nigeria. 

To discuss the child welfare implications of this book the School for Policy Studies held an event seeking to explore the parenting and child welfare policy and practice implications raised by Purple Hibiscus within an emerging child rights era in Nigeria. 

Blog by Ms Olatoun Gabi-Williams (Founder of Borders Literature for all Nations, Lagos, Nigeria)

“Situating Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in the Child Welfare Policy Context in Nigeria”. This is the title the organisers gave to this seminar which centres a deeply troubled fictional family living under military rule in 1980s Nigeria. Key elements of the seminar were: a reading of a novel excerpt which puts the violent hysteria of the immensely wealthy and influential family patriarch on display, my own review of the novel, and a panel discussion.

The review provides the justification for the meeting of child welfare stakeholders from Nigeria with our peers at Bristol’s School for Policy Studies which took place on Wednesday, 27th October 2021. Viewers will recognise in the Achike’s family crisis, a crisis that has its roots in a time that pre-exists the family – the colonial mission school the father attended as a child. By the end of the seminar, child welfare stakeholders were reminded of the mandate of social work in any situation involving the violation of child rights: the protection of these rights – now made possible in Nigeria by the passage of the Child Rights Act 2003. It has been adopted by over 24 states in a nation of 36.

This seminar was deeply concerned with the dangers colonial legacies may pose to the human rights of children in families. Their rights to life/survival, to development, to protection, to participation in the world around them and to dignity. Mindful of the African family structure with its strong inter-generational links, mindful of how inherited patterns of thought can function like generational curses in a family, a community, a nation, the seminar brought into focus the novel’s atomic vision of brokenness in a parent begetting brokenness in his dependents and it forces a reckoning with this peculiar brokenness which begets its own chain of brokenness.

The seminar was framed in the spirit of two inextinguishable uprisings, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which attests to a direct link between mental disease in Africa and the colonisation of Africa and Decolonizing the Mind by Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o which examines the politics of language, the premier weapon of epistemic violence wielded by imperial forces. With its gaze turned towards the tyrannies of europatriarchal and afro patriarchal knowledge, the seminar also channelled the spirit of Swedish/Nigerian feminist, Minna Salami, whose Sensuous Knowledge, is a pioneering work of epistemology.

But if the spirit of decoloniality is burning here, so too are questions about parenting: the panel examined the social exclusion wrought not by poverty but by wealth underlined by colonial attitudes; the panel shone a light on a Nigerian/ African/ global demographic that ought to be too rich and too famous to parent their children under the radar but that is exactly where the rich and powerful have been parenting: off the social work grid, out of sight, behind the high, fortified walls of their homes.

Dr. Tayo Ajirotutu of Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos and Tunde Koleoso, Rtd. Assistant Director of Social Welfare at Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Social Development were my colleagues on the panel. While we were able to address a few of the questions [from my moderator’s script published on BORDERS, a publicity platform and journal for the African book industry], here is a distillation of important research questions:

How prepared is the mental health care system of Nigeria, a former colony, to provide interventions for Eugene Achike’s condition?

Does the Nigerian mental health care system possess the approaches and resources for intervening in cases like that of Achike’s wife and children who are casualties of a lifetime of violence perpetrated by the family patriarch?

In this era of universal child rights, how much social work in our communities involves the children of the rich and powerful?

In this era of universal child rights, how much literature in childhood studies, social policy studies, family policy studies and social work practice is dedicated to the rich and powerful?

If it were discovered that the rights of the children of a rich and powerful family have been violated in this era of child rights laws, does the existing child welfare system have the resources to intervene effectively and to protect the child?

How have the real-life mission school contemporaries of the fictional Eugene Achike, (octogenarians today) raised their own children? [Type of education, enforcement of discipline, prohibitions, emphases, the language and culture of the home in post-colonial Nigeria]

How did the children of mission schools who rose (like Eugene Achike) to positions of leadership in political life and industry, raise their children? [Type of education, enforcement of discipline, prohibitions, emphases, the language and culture of the home in post-colonial Nigeria]


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Collateral damage: the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations

Blog by Dr Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

The acknowledgement that asylum systems across Europe are “hostile environments” for migrant groups has increased in academic and practitioner consciousness, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee reception crisis. However, although the impacts of socio-political hostilities on migrants are well documented, little has been written about the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations. Research led by Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School for Policy Studies, expands the focus of hostilities to consider the variable impacts of intensified bordering practices on this group.

Based on qualitative research which included 74 interviews undertaken across Britain, Denmark, and Sweden (2016–2018), the research outlines the experiences of practitioners working with refugee populations. It highlights that increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration have had multiple negative effects on practitioners working in this sector. This has potential for longer term negative impacts on practitioners, but also – importantly – refugee populations who require various forms of legal aid, or social and psychological support.

Working with refugee groups can be a fundamentally complex task. Whilst roles differ (such as lawyers, psychologists, or advocates and support workers), the experiences of people seeking asylum or living as refugees can impact on people supporting them in various ways. Likewise, the working conditions of practitioners is often reflected in the standard of care that they are able to offer when supporting people with complex lives, refugees and survivors of violence and persecution in particular. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue[1] are two of the most commonly cited problems in working in this area.

Emotional and Workplace Impacts on Practitioners

Interviews with practitioners indicate concerning additions to these potential problems: increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration which have had multiple effects on practitioners working in this sector. Indeed, one stark issue highlighted through interviews with lawyers, psychologists, detention custody officers, and support workers is that they felt their ability to effectively perform their own role well has been compromised. Some indicated increasing levels of stress and, in Sweden in particular (a strong state centric welfare model), a decreased faith in state and state decisions. Terms such as ‘powerless’ and ‘stress’ were included in responses to questions about the impacts of escalated harms in asylum – in particular that practitioners did not feel they could support people seeking asylum whilst they are being held in an indefinite state of uncertainty or crisis.

Practitioners found that changes in legislation or ‘rules’ meant that they constantly had to change their own approaches. Keeping up to date with the workings of the asylum process is increasingly difficult at a time when laws and policies are changing regularly, and thus affecting the rights or welfare entitlements that people seeking asylum can access. This is particularly difficult for people who are working with refugee groups as a means to providing humanitarian assistance, as they find themselves in positions where they are implementing laws they cannot agree with. For example, an employee of a humanitarian organisation working at Center Sandholm indicated, ‘I find it really, really difficult, this neutrality, impartiality concept, and increasingly so. Every time we have to enforce new, stricter rules that have only been put in place to put pressure on people [to leave]’.

Practitioners working with survivors of trauma or sexual violence raised concerns about their client’s inability to focus on therapy, counselling or integration programmes due to risk of dispersal or other exacerbations of illnesses. People seeking asylum can be more concerned with pressing issues arising in the immediate future, such as the threat of homelessness, fear of detention or deportation, or concern for family and friends still residing in areas of conflict or migrating across borders.

An integration project co-ordinator working in Denmark argued that, ‘it will only get worse. I mean there’s a culture of celebrating obstacles that we can put in people’s place… I mean unashamedly celebrating making it hard for people to access asylum and protective status’. This prediction – recorded in summer of 2018 – has proved accurate. By the end of the year the Danish People’s Party and the Venstre-led government announced new restrictions in the Finance Act 2019 which directly aim to reduce opportunities for integration of migrants and people seeking asylum and instead push toward deportations and enforced removals (Clante Bendixen, 2019).  This includes a significant change relating to integration, as the term itself is no longer used in relation to asylum, as focus has changed to accelerating deportation.

The Trend Towards Disempowerment

Practitioners also highlighted feelings and experiences which ranged from sadness or upset to disempowerment and hopelessness. For people working in a deportation centre in Denmark, there was dismay at the lack of clarity regarding the expectations of their role and that their participation did not always have a positive impact,

‘I had days when I went home thinking that today I was definitely a part of the problem, not the solution, today my presence here was a band aid at best but the patient’s haemorrhaging and I’m not actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’

In some places, the limits to the support that practitioners are able to provide are not only affected by economic resources, but also managerial and policy decisions on what is or is not allowed. As one nurse in an immigration detention centre reflected, ‘You want to do more than you are allowed; you are not allowed to’.

The emotional effects of seeing people living in avoidable and degrading circumstances are also clear. Many felt that cuts to staffing or services reduced their ability to offer adequate support, as one women’s support worker in Scotland indicated, ‘It really is crippling ‘cause we can’t meet the needs. Literally turning people away every day who are in crisis, so that is awful’. Shortly after this interview, in 2016, the interviewee contacted me to say their role had been removed. To date, it has not been replaced.

Likewise, others disclosed feelings of discomfort at increasingly being part of a system or structure that they had not set out to work in. People spoke of their jobs being reduced from support to ‘managing expectations’ for people seeking asylum and of bureaucracy superseding their capacity to provide support. For example, a custody officer in a Swedish immigration detention centre felt the shifts in law were removing her from the humanitarian approach she had tried to embed in her practice: ‘they [detainees] assume that I am working for the evil government. They think that I don’t see them as human beings, living … I think it’s horrible’.

Breaking Trust

Finally, this research found that impacts on practitioners are exacerbated by increasing mistrust between people seeking asylum and governmental and non-governmental organisations, particularly in the UK and Sweden.

For others, the emotional impacts of the degradation of people seeking asylum were palpable, as a social worker in the North West of England suggests:

‘Sometimes we need to separate our feelings away from the client, but for the first time since I have worked in this field I felt as if I was about to cry when I went to the hospital because I’ve never seen somebody who has been neglected by the system like this woman I came across, because you don’t treat people like this, this is unacceptable in 21st century Britain’.

Practitioners often alluded to a loss of faith in humanitarianism in their respective states. One torture rehabilitation director remarked that, ‘they’re testing this unfortunately, a social experiment, how far they can get with their whip’, whilst a barrister in London questioned the rationale of governmental agendas, asking ‘Even if you accept the premise that migration is a problem and needs to be reduced, why don’t you wait to see what the last set of bad laws did before you bring in the next of the bad laws?’.

In Sweden, a typically state centric nation, the impacts of this increasing mistrust was strengthened with the introduction of the REVA Project – a collaboration between Swedish Police, the Migration Agency and prison service which targets people suspected of living illegally in Sweden so as to speed up detection and deportation – and which has received subsequent criticism for racism (see Barker, 2017; European Parliament, 2013).

Migrant groups and practitioners are therefore left in precarious positions: anyone without documentation or who is awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim may be subject to arrest and possible detention or deportation, whilst some practitioners simultaneously lose faith in governmental agendas and face reduced capacity to undertake their role due to external pressures.

The nationality and borders bill, now in the House of Lords for readings after being debated for only nine minutes in the House of Commons, will inevitably continue this trend, creating an ever more hostile environment towards migrants and in which practitioners working with refugee populations have to operate, a trend Dr Canning has critiqued elsewhere as degradation by design.


[1] The former relates to experiencing emotional or psychological distress based on hearing or responding to trauma experienced by others (Barrington and Shakespeare-Finch, 2013). The latter refers to the emotional implications which can develop for people working at the frontline of response to trauma or other social problems, but feel restricted in their ability to do so due to exhaustion or burnout (Ray et al, 2013).

This blog is based on research and analysis presented here:

Reimagining Refugee Rights: Addressing asylum harms in Britain, Denmark and Sweden

Managing Expectations: Impacts of Hostile Migration Policies on Practitioners in Britain, Denmark and Sweden (Open Access).


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Why some anti-corruption campaigns make people more likely to pay a bribe

Commuters waiting at a bus stop in Lagos
Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Nic Cheeseman, University of Birmingham and Caryn Peiffer, University of Bristol

Donors and civil society groups spend tens of millions of dollars every year trying to combat corruption. They do it because corruption has been shown to increase poverty and inequality while undermining trust in the government. Reducing corruption is essential to improve public services and strengthen the social contract between citizens and the state.

But what if anti-corruption efforts actually make the situation worse?

Our research in Lagos, Nigeria, found that anti-corruption messages often have an unintended effect. Instead of building public resolve to reject corrupt acts, the messages we tested either had no effect or actually made people more likely to offer a bribe.

The reason may be that the messages reinforce popular perceptions that corruption is pervasive and insurmountable. In doing so, they encourage apathy and acceptance rather than inspire activism.

Fighting corruption

Efforts to combat corruption in “developing countries” initially focused on law enforcement by political leaders and bureaucrats. But these strategies met with limited success and so efforts switched to raising public awareness of the dangers of corruption.

This change of approach made sense. One reason that leaders don’t deliver on reforms is that they benefit from the way things are. Encouraging citizens to reject corrupt leaders would give those in power an incentive to act.

The last 20 years therefore saw a vast array of campaigns, from newspaper and radio advertisements to Twitter messages. Short films, theatre productions and signs that proclaim that government institutions are “corruption free zones” were also included.

These messages are seen by large numbers of people, but until recently there had been remarkably little systematic research on whether they actually work.

Researching corruption

To test the impact of anti-corruption messages we developed five short narratives like those promoted by civil society organisations and international donors. One message focused on explaining that corruption is widespread and damaging. Others emphasised the local impact of graft and the way it wasted citizens’ taxes.

To test the effect of more positive messages, one narrative talked about recent successes that political leaders had in curbing corruption. Another detailed the role that religious leaders played in promoting clean government.

We read the messages to 2,400 randomly selected people in Lagos. While corruption has often been identified as a major challenge in Nigeria, the Lagos State government has made some progress towards reducing government waste, ensuring all citizens pay taxes and delivering better services. It was therefore plausible that both positive and negative messages about corruption would resonate with Lagosians. The state is also ethnically diverse, with considerable poverty and inequality, and so reflects the kind of context in which anti-corruption messaging is often deployed.

Each person we interviewed was given one of the narratives. A control group was not given any anti-corruption information. This was to enable us to compare the impact of different messages. We then asked everyone a number of questions about their attitudes towards corruption.

In an advance on previous studies, we also invited 1,200 people to play a game in which they had an opportunity to win real money. In the game, players could take away more money if they were willing to pay a small bribe to the “banker” who determined the pay-outs. The game tested players’ commitment to rejecting corruption in a more demanding way than simply asking them if they believed corruption was wrong.

We were then able to evaluate whether anti-corruption messages were effective by looking at whether those who received them were more likely to demand clean government and less willing to pay a bribe.

More harm than good

In line with prior research, our findings suggest that anti-corruption campaigns may be doing more harm than good. None of the narratives we used had a positive effect overall. Many of them actually made Lagosians more likely to pay a bribe.

Put another way, the good news is that public relations campaigns can change citizens’ minds. But the bad news is that they often do so in unintended and counterproductive ways.

The reason for this seems to be that anti-corruption messages encourage citizens to think more about corruption, emphasising the extent of the problem. This contributes to “corruption fatigue”: the belief that the problem is simply too big for any one person to make a difference generates despondency. It makes individuals more likely to go with the flow than to stand against it.

This interpretation is supported by another finding that the negative effect of anti-corruption messaging was far more powerful among individuals who believed that corruption was pervasive. This reveals that the problematic consequences of anti-corruption messages are not universal. Among less pessimistic people, messages did not have a negative effect. And one message had the desired effect of reducing the probability of paying a bribe. This was the narrative that emphasised the relationship between corruption and citizens’ tax payments.

Our study therefore suggests that if we can target anti-corruption messages more effectively at specific audiences, we may be able to enhance their positive effects while minimising the risks.

What next?

Other studies have come to similar conclusions in Indonesia, Costa Rica and to some extent Papua New Guinea.

We therefore need to take the lessons of these studies seriously. Anti-corruption campaigns that send untargeted messages should be halted until we work out how to target them more effectively. The most logical response is to embrace new ways of working.

This might mean identifying messages that persuade citizens that corruption is fallingand so “nudge” them to believe it is a problem that can be overcome.

Where that’s not possible, it is also worth considering a more radical break with the past. As others working within the Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium have argued, the most promising approach may be to abandon traditional anti-corruption messaging in favour of working more indirectly. This would involve building public demand for greater political accountability and transparency without always talking directly about corruption.

Such an approach would be less high profile, but is far more likely to be effective.The Conversation

Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham and Caryn Peiffer, Lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Blog from the winner of Policy & Politics 2021 postgraduate prize

Blog by Doug Cooley, winner of the Policy & Politics 2021 postgraduate prize to the student achieving the highest overall mark on the ‘Power, Politics and the Policy Process’ unit of the Masters in Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies.

Originally published on the Policy and Politics Blog.

I’m Doug Cooley, and have just finished a one-year Masters in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, home to the Policy & Politics journal. I hope to use this MPP as a basis to conduct future academic or practical policy work. During the year, I have focussed my research on various theoretical concepts, including policy transfer, and power structures in the policy process, applying these concepts to neoliberal mechanisms in the Global Financial System, and to the UK’s local governance structures. I am delighted to have won the Policy & Politics prize for achieving the highest overall mark on the unit ‘Power, Politics and the Policy Process’ as part of the MPP programme.

In this post, I highlight a piece of my work which explores the link between policy transfer, which I define as replication of policy instruments between polities, and institutional isomorphism, or the convergence of organisational structures and governance mechanisms. The relative lack of literature on the link is surprising, given how intuitively similar these ideas are, and the different normative connotations of the two concepts. Policy transfer emphasises the benefits of learning between polities, whereas institutional isomorphism is seen as a constraining influence on innovation.

I posit, building on Radaelli (2002), that there may be a complex interconnectedness between policy transfer and institutional isomorphism. I explore this both theoretically, and empirically through the lens of central banking, and suggest this might be an avenue for future research. As Frumkin and Galaskiewicz (2004) argue, it seems likely that policy transfer can result in institutional isomorphism, for example where public sector organisations work together to develop a joint response in times of upheaval.

Furthermore, a reverse causal relationship is also apparent: in line with Stone (2001), the influence of international institutions has caused similar government bodies in different polities to look more and more alike, which has engendered convergence in the actual policies implemented by these institutions.

Comparing central banking structures is a valuable avenue for exploring the link between these two concepts. Marcussen (2005) focussed on central bank independence as an example of policy convergence, whereby, through the 1990s many central banks were structurally reformed, being granted increased independence from political influence.  Moreover, there was remarkable alignment in the timing with which the major central banks implemented Quantitative Easing following the Global Financial Crisis. Policy transfer hence appears to be prevalent in central banking.

I use central banking as a case study to explore the theoretical link between policy transfer and institutional isomorphism.  The use of similar policy instruments by different central banks, and an increased homogeneity of the underlying decision-making structures (such as policy committees), have happened concurrently. I suggest reasons for this, including coercive pressure by influential NGOs, and a desire to appease markets under the neoliberal global economic paradigm. These factors have led policymakers to ensure that their monetary policy mechanisms are in step with the global policy community and led to both policy transfer and to institutional isomorphism in this context.

Central banking, therefore, provides an intriguing example of an area where it appears that policy transfer and institutional isomorphism coincide. The mechanisms through which this occurs, and the causal interaction between the two concepts, indicate valuable future research avenues. This could take the form of close reading of policy documents and data analysis to further identify areas of convergence between central banks, and interviews with policymakers to understand similarities and differences in soft power structures, and how these interact with the convergence of policy instruments.

I hope to be able to explore these important issues further in the future, but in the meantime, I will continue to read others’ research in the area, much of which appears in Policy and Politics journal, such as Overcoming the failure of ‘silicon somewheres’: learning in policy transfer processes by Sarah Giest, Successful policy transfer and public sector reform in developing countries by Lhawang Ugyel and Carsten Daugbjerg, and Diane Stone’s article on Understanding the transfer of policy failure: bricolage, experimentalism and translation.

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Widen your horizons with a year abroad

Studying or working abroad is a fantastic opportunity to internationalise your degree, boost your personal development and gain a new perspective on your studies.

Each year, more than 700 Bristol students spend a semester or year abroad. Students often say that their placement abroad was a highlight of their degree.

Here, Hannah talks about her experience of studying at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, as part of her BSc in Criminology.

It must have been daunting leaving your family and friends behind. How did you feel when you first arrived?

During the first week it felt like I was on holiday, if not slightly hectic. Whilst you’re trying to settle yourself in and complete necessary errands, like buying a phone SIM and opening a bank account, you are also trying to meet people and explore your new home before university commences. I personally didn’t struggle to meet people as I lived in a shared house with a large group of students from other universities. However, if you do feel lonely or like you are struggling to meet people, the university hosts welcome/mingling events during orientation week which a lot of students attend so this can also be a good way to meet people.

What was the course like?

I found the studying side of the year enjoyable. The workload was similar to what I have been used to at Bristol, but with more frequent assessments throughout the semester. I decided to take two open units and two units compatible with my course, which was really rewarding as it allowed me to explore new subjects/interests outside of my degree subject.

How did you spend your time outside of your studies?

In terms of socialising and travelling, there was so much to do in and around Brisbane and the city was always putting on events and entertainment. The university also has societies for international students which you can join to meet people or just enjoy the events they host; QUEST is particularly good for this. With regard to travelling, you will almost certainly do some travelling in your year abroad and I would 100% recommend this but definitely start saving as soon as you can to ensure you can fully experience each destination you choose without feeling too much of a financial strain.

What’s your advice to students taking a year abroad?

I think a great way to approach the year is to be open and friendly to everyone. You will meet so many people throughout the year so keeping an open mind to experiences and people will be hugely beneficial to you. I also think it is important to remember that you are in the same boat as lots of other students and you are all probably feeling the same way, so don’t worry if you are feeling a bit daunted at first as you will soon find your feet.

Find out more about Study Abroad here.


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It’s time to flip the sexist script

It's time to flip the sexist script cover images

This article was originally published by Women’s Aid in their Safe blog.


Tuesday 20th July 2021: Today, Women’s Aid and the University of Bristol publish new research, “Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for Policy and Practice”. Lizzie McCarthy (Knowledge Exchange Fellow – based in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research while undertaking this research) and Sarah Davidge explain why it is vital that we recognise the role sexism and misogyny play in setting the scene for domestic abuse. 

At Women’s Aid we often get asked, ‘why do you say domestic abuse is gendered?’

Our answer would be that even though anyone can experience domestic abuse and should have access to appropriate support, the evidence shows us that  there is a disproportionate impact on women. We know that women are more likely to experience domestic abuse, are more likely to be subjected to coercive control (those abusive actions that restrict personal freedom and instil fear) and are more likely to be seriously physically and mentally harmed or killed. The kinds of support they need also tend to be very different.  

The question we ask is, why are women so much more likely to experience abuse and why is this experience so different to men?

The answer is because domestic abuse perpetrated by men against women is part of wider sexism and misogyny. It is rooted in women’s unequal status in society and is part of the wider social problem of male violence against women and girls. The root causes of domestic abuse are different for women and so the responses to tackling that abuse in policy and practice have to be different  too.  Similarly, it is important to consider how other experiences of inequality shape survivors’ experiences of abuse- including the barriers and discrimination faced by Black and minoritised survivors, LGBT+ survivors, disabled survivors and older and teen survivors.   

We know from our work with survivors that sexism and misogyny permeate their experiences of domestic abuse.

Feminist writers and activists have been speaking out about harmful gendered stereotypes and their link to male violence against women and girls for decades. Women’s Aid and the University of Bristol have come together to take a fresh look at this. Together, we analysed the interview transcripts of 37 survivors who had taken part in the recent ESRC* funded Justice, Inequality and Gender-based Violence Project. We looked for ‘gendering discourses’ to see where sexism and misogyny had played a part in survivors’ experiences of abuse. 

Today (20th July 2021)  we’ve published a report on the findings, Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for policy and practice.   

We found that sexist myths which are part of everyday society had enabled and shaped the survivors’ experiences of abuse. Here are three common sexist scripts that featured in survivors’ experiences of abuse, with quotes from the survivors we interviewed:  

1. Sexist script: Women and men should play traditional roles in the household

Flipped script: Patriarchal roles in the home can enable domestic abuse

“It really became apparent to me in … we moved in together … and it was very much … it was my job to run the household, and his to basically tell me what to do.” 

“Just to be subservient and just do everything that he said and not to have a voice or an opinion,…”   

“…[he] didn’t lift a finger round the house but expected me to do it. I’d be called to account if things weren’t done.” 

“…kind of everything revolved around him…” 

Survivors spoke about a hierarchy of roles in their homes or intimate relationships. For the survivors we interviewed, the man was in charge as the ‘head of the household’, and the woman had the unchosen role of the ‘homemaker’. The survivors were tasked with household chores or running the home efficiently, without having any say in how this work was carried out. They spoke of how their male intimate partners often dictated exacting rules about how household work had to be performed, even though the men usually refused to participate in this work themselves. Male authority in the household or relationship was both underpinned and reinforced by male violence and abuse. Evan Stark in his 2007 book on Coercive Control argues that it is easier for men to coerce women through household work (rather than vice versa) because this is already socially accepted as ‘women’s work’ (i.e. these are household roles that women are already socially expected to perform).  

2. Sexist script: Women are sexual objects

Flipped script: The sexual objectification of women underpins domestic abuse

“And I think just sort of like the society that we live in at the moment it very much pushes that idea … women are objects and they’re very much sexualised and … like yeah, they’re there for men, like yeah there for the use of … which is … yeah that’s really bad.”   

The female survivors we interviewed often described themselves, and how they perceived others saw them, in terms of sexual objects. They were seen as existing for the pleasure of men and expected to engage in sexual activity that was controlled and defined by their abusive male intimate partners. The interview transcripts included reports of many offensive sexualised terms used against women (“dirty bitch”, “slag”, “slut”, “nympho”)  that were never applied to men. Women  were seen as possessions, aggressively and jealously guarded by their male partners or ‘owners’.  The survivors commonly described being routinely subjected to rape and sexual coercion and harassment in their intimate relationships. It was this most intimate part of a relationship that abusive men used to cement their power and control over women. 

3. Sexist script: Woman are crazy and over-emotional

Flipped script: Women are silenced with the labels of ‘crazy’ or ‘over-emotional’ when they try to talk about domestic abuse

“The courts are extremely sexist places, and there is still very much a thing about an angry loud woman is crazy, you know, and abusive men are charming … and charming with professionals.”  

“…they’re painting me as this crazy woman…”  

The survivors we interviewed told us how labels of mental illness had long-lasting negative implications for them. Survivors themselves were seen as problematic rather than the abuse and violence committed against them being identified as the problem. This label of ‘crazy’ was a tool perpetrators could use to threaten survivors or call their credibility into question. Being mentally ill, or showing mental or emotional distress, seemed to be all too easily linked into wider stereotypes about women as a group being supposedly unstable, over-emotional or hysterical. Labels of being mentally unwell overshadowed many of the survivors’ experiences of external responses to domestic abuse (including in court, in interactions with the police and responses from friends and family) and formed a significant barrier to accessing justice and support.  

How can we flip the sexist script?  

Along with our new report “Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse”, we have today launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #FlipTheSexistScript. It is impossible to disentangle women’s experiences of domestic abuse from the violence, abuse and harassment that they are subject to elsewhere in their lives. Here‘s what we think needs to happen to #FlipTheSexistScript: 

  • Specialist domestic abuse services that are run by women, for women, understand how women’s experiences of abuse have been shaped by lifelong experiences of sexism and misogyny, and only they can help women truly recover from abuse. Similarly, those services that are led by and for women from minoritised groups, such as services for Black and minoritised survivors, disabled survivors and LGBT+ survivors are often best placed to support survivors who have been subject to multiple forms of violence and oppression. They all desperately need sufficient, sustainable and long-term funding.  
  • The root causes of domestic abuse by men against women lie in the disempowerment, objectification and silencing of women. The response must be building empowering spaces for women, challenging inequality and giving all women a voice, including women from minoritised groups. But these are under severe threat from dangerous ‘gender neutral’ funding approaches. You can take action to flip the sexist script by signing  our petition to require local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women.  
  • Policy-makers and legislators must consistently recognise domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls. Unless we address inequality, we will never end domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has brought many positive changes for survivors, but in its statutory definition (the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse) the government missed the opportunity to recognise the gendered nature of domestic abuse in law. We are also very concerned that the government is currently proposing to fragment domestic abuse from the violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy. We strongly believe that domestic abuse must be part of single comprehensive, holistic and integrated framework to address VAWG.  
  • Structural inequalities create power imbalances in everyday life which enable violence, abuse and harassment. To end this we all must challenge all forms of discrimination and inequality. We all need to work together to call out the sexism and misogyny that enable and entitle men to demean, objectify, abuse and control women. We need to unlearn gender stereotypes, unpick power imbalances, and unteach misogyny.  

Feminist writers and activists around the time when Women’s Aid began in the 1970s (and even earlier than this) warned of the harm caused by social norms about masculinity and femininity. Our research shows that these warnings remain as pertinent today as ever. It is time (in fact, it is long overdue) to recognise that until we challenge sexism and misogyny and their prominence in our society, we cannot effectively tackle domestic abuse. In other words, it’s time to flip the sexist script.   

Want to join us in challenging sexism and misogyny?

  • Read our new report, Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for policy and practice here
  • Follow our social media campaign #FlipTheSexistScript   
  • Sign our petition to require local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women.  
  • Join the Women’s Aid Campaign Champions and support our national campaigns on a local level, give survivors of domestic abuse a voice and help to ensure that politicians and other key decision makers are listening.  
  • Women’s Aid is working in partnership with Yves Saint Laurent Beauty to educate children and young people about intimate partner violence and challenge assumptions about gender, power and equality. If you work with children and young people, sign up to become an Expect Respect Advocate.  

  *Economic and Social Research Council  

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