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What must I seem like to you?

How ‘victimhood’ is portrayed in educational advocacy interventions for female survivors of domestic violence and abuse

This project intends to investigate how advocacy programmes of front-line and third-sector women’s organisations portray ‘victimhood’ of female domestic violence and abuse (DVA) survivors. This educational and informational content is examined against implicit and explicit social norms, indicators, and conventions (NICs) which relate to DVA, to explore how NICs influence advocacy interventions. Understanding this relationship between advocacy and social NICs is significant because it impacts the construction of ‘victimhood’ for survivors who engage with advocacy interventions, (Dunn & Powell-Williams, 2007) and also whether the advocacy is empowering, therapeutic, or harmful for their mental health.


Advocacy relates to a broad range of services, including those which provide safety, legal, planning, and financial advice to women who have experienced DVA, their allies, or professionals in the healthcare and protection sectors. While there have been qualified reviews on the effectiveness of advocacy in general in reducing DVA (Rivas, 2016), to our knowledge, there have not been any studies which consider the role of the informational content in reflecting, positioning, and reinforcing social NICs that characterise attitudes to DVA. This may present an issue where social NICs themselves transmit and reproduce negative or oppressive sentiments, especially where these are ‘hidden’ in cultural or political agendas.


The VAMHN Consultation Report (2019) suggests that survivors may find advocacy support to be unhelpful whenever it is pejorative, essentialised, or given out of context. While most advocacy programmes do try to provide tangible and pragmatic options, the problem is that if survivors become disengaged with the service for the reasons above, they are more likely to become retraumatised or recede into their abusive circumstances. To reduce the likelihood of disengagement, it is important to have a holistic knowledge on social NICs that can help advocates to better situate their educational strategies and information provided to survivors.


The imperative to create a holistic awareness is drawn against the increasing recognition that trauma-informed interventions may be more effective than traditional ones based on restorative or avoidance approaches (Macy,, 2011) and that there is a reciprocal relationship between trauma and expressions of power embedded in social NICs (Taft, et. al, 2021). Meanwhile, it is also necessary to stay current of socio-political and socio-cultural trends in the manifestation, understanding, and mitigation of DVA, because of the increasing frequency of structural shifts which the UK society is being exposed to. Such shifts include Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the prevalence of digital devices in homes, all of which have had profound effects on the incidence and forms of DVA (Gill & Sundari, 2021; Piquero, 2021).


Finally, the project suggests a method for evaluating the informational materials and training packs used in advocacy interventions, based on principles of multiple-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) which are used in other quantitative fields (Greco,, 2016). The research design will extend traditional MCDA by emphasising the importance of survivors’ voices in such evaluations.


Partnering Organisations:

The project assumes a participatory design with transformative and emancipatory elements. The key stakeholders are survivor-led women’s support organisations and survivors of DVA. Directors of several organisations were approached about their advocacy programmes, engagement with third-party training material, auditing, and responding to feedback. Five organisations are collaborating in this project:


  1. Bexley Women’s Aid

  2. Sutton Women’s Centre

  3. Watford Women’s Centre

  4. Asian Women’s Resource Centre

  5. London Black Women’s Project

Research Aims & Questions:

AIM 1: To identify, classify, and structure the salient themes relating to ‘victimhood’ within educational and informational content of DVA advocacy programmes, and within the social NICs that influence survivors’ experience of victimhood through this content.


AIM 2: To generate an MCDA-based evaluation protocol for content within advocacy programmes, which can guide trauma-informed practices by validating survivors’ feedback on these programmes.

Contribution to greater understanding of the severity and frequency of ‘hidden harms’ for women experiencing or at risk of DVA, and of pathways to improve their quality of life and mental health through trauma-informed interventions. Findings will promote the optimisation of these interventions by asserting survivors’ voices as robust evidence. Finally, MCDA-based protocols can complement rapid evidence assessments of DVA.


Aims elaborated through 5 research questions (RQs):

  1. How can a mapping of social power dynamics be constructed from the themes relating to ‘victimhood’?

  2. How can these power dynamics be interpreted within an intersectionality framework (Crenshaw, 1991)?

  3. How do survivors reflect on their representation within aggregated social indicators (metrics) of DVA?

  4. How might the testimonies of survivors and professionals in support services be accounted for alongside academic expert opinions on DVA?

  5. How do the health and justice-based views which underlie social NICs influence trauma-informed approaches to advocay.

Project Output: Reflection & Training Day

On 27 February 2023 the Principal Investigator hosted a 'Reflection and Training Day' and invited project partners, participants from the focus groups, research experts, and other charities and services working to support survivors of violence and abuse. The aim of the day was to present some of the key findings from the research so that users of training material and content around violence and abuse can offer some input into how findings from the research can have an impact on their current content and services.


The Reflection Day was also an opportunity to offer some core training around reading data and statistics, particularly focusing on what does it mean to be 1 in 5 for survivors, and what is responsible use of data representation in infographics. The session also featured guest speaking sessions from British Transport Police (Inspector Nicola Outen, Force Violence and Intimidation Against Women and Girls Coordinator) and Sutton Night Watch Homeless Charity (Kelly McMullen [Director], Kerry Williams [Volunteer]), who shared some of the challenges, stories and experiences of women they assist and programmes of support offered to women they encounter who are survivors of abuse and violence. 

Snapshots of our Reflection Day:
Activities produced during the Reflection Day:

offered suggestions for improved 
which need to be more
adaptative to women on different stages of recovery

Guest Speakers and Social Media Presence

Professor Cecilia Essau (Project CI) joins via Teams


Inspector Nicola Outen, British Transport Police

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Data Training Session - 'Use and Misuse of Statistical Data' (K.S. Singh, Vidi Vici Associates)

In this training session, we visited some of the infographics on violence and abuse against women and girls that are commonly sited and portrayed in social media, or used to inform the jargon and the importance of informed research in the field. This information is actively used to shape our programme of work and to sensitise the public to the critical nature and severity of abuse and violence. However, during our training sessions key questions were raised about targeting audiences (males versus females), where to represent this visual information, and we explored the concept of when is too much data counterproductive. 

We looked at specific examples of how data can be used to showcase without much clarity where women have agreed that violence and abuse against them is justifiable. It was determined that showcasing data in this manner (Figure 1) can normalise abuse to a level where it might be seen as acceptable by perpetrators if it is believed to be a norm for the victims.


















In instances like this, data needs to be represented to showcase more specific information about these women particularly characteristics that can help us understand women by stages of abuse and recovery, cultural differences, educational variations, socio-economic backgrounds. We raised issues around women who are victims of abuse and violence who might be highly educated (in corporate careers) versus those who might be homeless and experience random acts of violence and abuse. We also explored instances where too much data is not good as it can really make the content too granular and then not much information or a sense of benchmarking trends and the average understanding of the impact of violence and abuse becomes loose and incomprehensible (Figure 2). 











The lessons learnt from the data sharing session helped us understand that data needs to be bespoke both for the regions they represent (particularly the local boroughs of service organisations and shelters that women use) and also that infographic data needs to be adaptative to better reflect women who are on different stages of recovery for us to better understand the long and short term journey of recovery.  

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Figure 1: Violence against women and girls as justified by women from Tableau Public

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Figure 2: Violence against women and girls by country example from Tableau Public

Historic Campus Tour by Gilly King, University of Roehampton

Research Collaborators (Co-Investigators):

Professor Cecilia Essau

Cecilia A. Essau is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director of the Centre for Applied Research and Assessment in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing at the University of Roehampton. She holds a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Florey Medical Research Foundation (Mental Health) and is currently a Scientific Advisor at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the development and dissemination of evidence-based training packages for adolescents with drug use disorders. She is the author of over 245 articles, and author/editor of 22 books in the areas of mental health, focusing on anxiety disorders, adolescent depression and evidence based psychological interventions. Further details on her work can be viewed here.



Professor Aisha K. Gill CBE

Aisha K. Gill has had national and international impact in the field of violence against women and children in majority and racially minoritised communities. She has undertaken research on intersectional criminal justice responses to domestic violence and policing, forced marriage and ‘honour’ killings, ‘honour’-based violence, FGM, post-separation violence, domestic violence and child contact and child sexual abuse/exploitation and sexual violence in minoritised communities. Funders include the ESRC, FCO, Home Office Crime Reduction Programme, Sussex Borough Council, Crime Reduction Partnership, Forced Marriage Unit, HMIC, NSPCC, Hertfordshire Police, Nuffield Foundation, Santander, Women’s Aid and The United Nations. For this project, she brings over 21 years of grassroot activism in violence against women and girls (VAWG) and will be able to contribute to intersectional analyses of emerging themes and discussions related to that of ‘victimhood’. Her public profile, as a well-known activist for VAWG, will assist with dissemination of findings and lobbying of support for inclusion and changes to policies and practices. To read more about her work visit here


Funding Information:

This project is funded by the The Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN) for £25K as part of the final 'Intervention' theme for the Small Grant Competition. This UKRI funding scheme hosted three calls for small grants to support research in specific areas, to address identified gaps in knowledge, and to improve the knowledge-base in areas of new challenge or changing policy and practice. Only 4 grants were available up to a maximum of £25,000 (in each round) to deliver a targeted piece of research or to pump-prime larger projects. Each of the three calls (one per year) were themed: measurement (2019), understanding (2020) and intervention (2021). For more information on the status of the current project please contact Dr Melissa Jogie (Principal Investigator) for this award. 

This project was funded by the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN). VAMHN is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and their support is gratefully acknowledged (Grant reference: ES/S004424/1). Any views expressed here are those of the project investigators and do not necessarily represent the views of VAMHN or UKRI.

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