In this context, it’s useful to think of empowerment as being the opposite of the disempowerment associated with sexual assault.  That is, empowerment involves having a sense of control, being able to make or have a voice in making decisions.  Power is even and fair.

Empowerment carries with it a certain weight of responsibility and requires internal and external resources. Power without action and influence is not considered to be empowerment.

Empowerment is influenced by:

  • internal factors such as personality, maturity, trauma events, upbringing, internalised social status
  • external factors such as: organisational systems and procedures; approach of helpers; access to resources such as information, services and money; social status; family and friendship networks
  • empowerment and disempowerment may be situational

The  empowerment model holds that external factors (systems and others) are the primary factors responsible for disempowerment and that advocates aim to facilitate the resources, information and systems which provide the necessary ingredients for empowerment of victim/survivors. These ingredients include reducing/removing barriers to empowerment as well as providing enabling factors.  However, it is ultimately the client’s choice and responsibility on how much and in what situations they choose empowerment.

Client-led, Independence, Traumatic stress and Empowerment

The emphasis of an empowerment approach is to facilitate victim/survivors regaining control over their lives, whilst the professional is also aware a victim/survivor may be overwhelmed by crisis and not always able to think clearly and make decisions. CALCASA (2011)  p 22.

Empowering techniques need to cater for the needs of victim/survivors where they are at.

Apart from feeling overwhelmed, it’s reasonable for victim/survivors to hand over decision-making and responsibility for handling of certain legal procedures; “Indeed, as much as participants desired control over whether their case would proceed, decision-making power was identified as a potential burden of responsibility, and something that individual victim/survivors may not have the confidence or expertise to undertake”. Clark (2010) P 35 Some people just have to find their own way in their own time. Click here for one such story from a victim/survivor of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

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Amanda Paton

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What to do

The advocacy domains in this website such as accessibility, client-led, informed decision making. and client feedback all have strong elements associated with empowerment. This view is reinforced by the NASASV agency standards which recommend;

Services can work towards empowerment by:

 ensuring that the views of those who have experienced sexual violence are sought and used to influence service provision
 promoting the rights of those who have experienced sexual violence through the provision of information, options and choices, and
 ensuring that decisions about accessing services are in the hands of the person seeking assistance.NASASV Standards pp 20-21

The NASASV standards also stresses the nature of power imbalance in sexual violence as well as the need to recognise and manage power differences between clients and agency professionals:

…sexual assault is a consequence of, and reinforcement of, power inequality. Feminist services, arising out of the women’s movement recognised these imbalances in social constructs and seek to address these imbalances and to restore dignity, strength and power back to the client, and advocate for social justice and equality … The practitioner should pro-actively address the inherent power differential between themself and their client … In achieving this it is essential that the practitioner operate from a client centred and empathic position and use strengths based interventions. Most importantly, the practitioner will recognise the power imbalance inherent in the relationship and not misuse that power”. NASASV Standards pp 17-18.

It’s therefore important to examine your own cultural position and how this impacts on power relationships: for example, being educated, employed, white, office based and being seen as an ‘expert’ may create power differences between you and your client. Recognising this can help. What else can you do to minimise these sorts of power differences? Click here for more on cultural cmpetency from NASASV and click here for more links to resources on culture

There are many other ways to be respectful while providing opportunities for clients to regain power and control. Below are more examples or approaches which contribute to the empowerment of service users:

  • Utilise trauma informed techniques to be with and by the side of clients when they are emotionally vulnerable (e.g. angry, dissociating, depressed, overwhelmed)
  • Learn to discriminate between emotional displays which are
    a) a need for expression (your role is simply to empathise), or
    b) a call to action (your role is to facilitate action)
  • Use strength-based, solution focused, growth type coaching approaches
  • Never leave the scene of a decision (yours or your client’s) without attempting to facilitate a plan for next action step
  • Empower yourself with regular, growth model supervision (including peer supervision)
  • Link with supportive social networks
  • Useful things to have on your ‘yacht’ before you leave port (metaphor and pictures can be helpful)
    – a destination (goal setting)
    – a map (process maps and diagrams)
    – a wheel house (action learning feedback loops to see what’s working, what’s not and to make adjustments)
    – a crew (people you trust to help share the load)
    – a keel to help keep the boat steady and upright  (discover values & what’s important- they’re at the base of everything else)
    – emergency equipment (safety planning)
    – food, fresh water, clothing, bedding (basic needs are met)
    – a positive, yet realistic approach
  • What else? Of course there are other ways – start noticing, creating, discussion and taking action…

Standards for empowerment

  • Click here for the Empowerment standard and indicators from Action for Advocacy (UK).
  • Click here for the NASASV agency standard ‘Client Engagement’ which outlines why a crisis intervention approach is required as well as other empowering elements in its approach.
  • Click here for search results when the search terms ‘Advocate Empowerment Sexual Abuse’ are used in the National Occupational Standards (UK)