Stephanie Covington explores the link between gender-based violence and the criminal justice system
Often when people hear about violence within a family, they ask questions like, ‘Why does she stay?’ One answer is that leaving an abusive situation is a privilege – it requires resources, planning, and support. Truthfully, none of us knows what we would do if we were faced with the same history, pressures, and choices as we see in Dixon and Daughters.
It is a common belief that abuse is unusual and only affects a few women’s lives. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The reality makes for some uncomfortable reading. One in four young people in the UK report having at least one experience of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect by a parent or caregiver during childhood. Young people who experience childhood maltreatment by a parent are at higher risk of experiencing further victimisation, especially intimate partner violence.
Women with histories of childhood sexual abuse are six times more likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders than women without such histories. These women are also eight times more likely to have drug dependence, five times more likely to have alcohol dependence, seven times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, and four times more likely to have eating disorder than women without such histories.
Women are over six times more likely to experience sexual assault than men. Approximately one in five women in England and Wales have been sexually assaulted since the age of 16. This rate is almost ten times higher than the rate for men. Contrary to what many people believe, assault is not usually the result of random chance encounters. 90 per cent of victims of sexual violence know their perpetrators. Approximately one in three women in England and Wales experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Almost half of female homicide victims (46 per cent) are killed by a current or former romantic partner; this is more than six times the rate for men (seven per cent). Only eight per cent of female homicide victims are killed by strangers.
Domestic violence, sexual abuse, and addiction create overwhelming shame, as well as the fear of further assault and potential death. The women of Dixon and Daughters represent a vast number of women, not just in the UK but around the world, who have experienced overwhelming trauma.
The root of the word trauma is wound. Gender-based violence is endemic and impacts women with both visible and invisible wounds. For an adult man, the risk for abuse comes most often from an enemy or stranger. For an adult woman, the primary risk is in her relationship with the person to whom she says, ‘I love you’.
Justice-involved women have the highest rates of abuse and trauma in their histories, and subsequently high levels of mental health needs. They are routinely made invisible, erased from public conversation, and disallowed opportunities to speak for themselves.
Leigh and Mary in Dixon and Daughters represent the 3,179 women in prison in England and Wales, roughly four per cent of the criminal justice population. Even a six-month sentence gravely disrupts their work, housing, and families – and leaves them with enduring societal stigma.
Growing up with abuse and violence, being in abusive relationships as teenagers and adults, using alcohol and other drugs to manage feelings, committing crimes to support children and/or an addiction, and trying to protect children and themselves from an abuser are common experiences for justice-impacted women. What the statistics do not tell us is their stories.
To get their basic needs met inside prison, women have to rely on each other more than men do. Women in prison are much more likely to build family-type bonds, to share resources, and to talk with each other about their struggles. I am amazed by the resilience, kindness, wisdom, and strength that women living in prison have consistently brought to my life and work, and even more importantly, to each other.
While some experience a real sense of family within their housing units, there are a number of ways women connect with each other that more accurately fall under the heading of mentorship. I’ve often seen relationships where an older woman who has been living in prison for a while takes a younger woman as her responsibility, like Mary and Leigh.
What do people want in prison? They want to be out. The way women fantasise about getting out can be disconnected from the realities of their lives, but the dream is a mode of survival. Most prisons do not offer enough supportive transition services, and resettlement services for recently released women are inconsistently available. Practically, what this means for women leaving prison is that the stigma and difficulties of incarceration do not end when their sentence is over.
In focus groups, women in prison have said that for a successful resettlement they needed housing, drug treatment, education, job skills, and services for domestic violence. These are the very same services women said would have prevented them from being in prison in the first place. This reveals an enormous systemic failure. Many women are like Leigh, who has been released from prison without any resources beyond her also formerly incarcerated friend, Mary. Their relationship reveals a common story: women help women when the systems have failed them.
The stigma endured by women with histories of criminalisation is robust and constantly present in media, policy, and law. It perpetuates wrong beliefs about who goes to prison, why they go, and what they need. Women with lived experience of trauma, addiction, and incarceration have already made it clear: we must develop more gender-responsive and trauma-informed services for them to break intergenerational cycles of violence.
Dixon and Daughters offers audiences a chance to understand and empathise with women whose life experiences may be very different from their own, an important step toward cultural change. A new, innovative network of accommodation and services, Hope Street in Southampton, may provide one answer to the problems of incarceration and resettlement. And more resources are being created to help people better understand the experience of those whose traumatic histories have led to incarceration. My own book, Hidden Healers: The Unexpected Ways Women in Prison Help Each Other Survive is written for those who are ready to know more about what is happening inside women’s prisons, and how they can step up to support movements already working for change.
When facing the painful realities of gender and family violence, addiction, incarceration, and trauma, I often return to a quote from Helen Keller: ‘Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.’ It is important that we acknowledge and hold onto both realities, so that with open eyes and open hearts we can continue to support those who need it.
© Stephanie S Covington, April 2023
Stephanie S Covington, PhD, LCSW, is author of Hidden Healers: The Unexpected Ways Women in Prison Help Each Other Survive (June 2023), Co-director of the Center for Gender & Justice (La Jolla, California) and Senior Advisor for One Small Thing (London, UK).
This article was first published in the programme for Dixon and Daughters, a co-production between Clean Break and National Theatre, written by Deborah Bruce.