Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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Contextual Safeguarding and intersectionality

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In this blog, Molly examines whether intersectional feminism could be a tool for understanding feelings of power/disempowerment that young people experience which are linked to identity. She asks how this lens could help us understand the ways in which young people experience the different contexts they move through, and what questions we can begin to ask as practitioners to inform interventions into the spaces where young people spend their time.

Molly Manister is a Research Assistant currently working on the National Scale Up and on strategic projects in the Contextual Safeguarding team. Molly previously worked at The Children’s Society, and she has a particular interest in women and children’s rights, gender, race and identity.

Contextual Safeguarding and intersectionality

I joined the Contextual Safeguarding Team as a Research Assistant in July 2020. Coming into this team from a voluntary and community sector (VCS) and human rights background, I wanted to learn as much as I could about Contextual Safeguarding and social care systems, whilst also thinking about how I can incorporate my experience as my knowledge and understanding of this world deepened. My personal research interests are broadly centred around feminist theory, power, and identity. More specifically, I’m interested in understanding how exploitation and violence are shaped by structural inequalities.

Feminism and social care

Feminist theory in social care is not new[1]. However, the focus has largely been on how the concept of “the family” is constructed - particularly how we understand motherhood. There is also a wealth of rich thinking around how intersectional feminism can strengthen social work – from domestic violence, to community-led approaches, to work with refugees. First coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectional feminism was developed to unpack the issue of black women’s marginalisation in critical legal studies, specifically in the USA, highlighting that “all inequality is not created equal”. This means that viewing experiences of inequality as separate from one another cannot account for the ways in which overlapping forms of oppression and disempowerment are experienced by individuals.


[1] See also Dominelli; Fook and Featherstone

How might the lens of intersectional feminism help us in making young people safer? When we think about the foundational theory underpinning contextual safeguarding, we explore how young people draw on various forms of ‘capital’ as they move and live in different spaces, and what this means for their levels of risk. Yet as we are all aware, contexts, such as parks or schools, do not exist in a vacuum. As we consider changing our practice to make the spaces where young people spend their time safer, we must acknowledge that these spaces are not experienced equally by young people. To understand how a young person navigates the rules at play within a context, we must also look to the rules at play in the wider economic, political and social spheres that exacerbate inequality. In doing so we become mindful of how identities – including race, gender, poverty, (dis)ability, sexuality etc., - shape young people’s experiences of these ‘contexts in context’.

Intersectionality and context

I began thinking about this around 7 months into my role when I was sitting in on my first Contextual Safeguarding seminar to a class of Masters students. We were discussing a case study about an incident involving a peer group in a park, and were considering approaches to assessing the context and the harm faced by the young people within it. As the discussion was closing, one of the students raised a question about the wider context of the community, asking if we knew whether Sasha, as a mixed race young person central to the case study, was living in a predominantly white community? He then expanded on this further, talking about how she might experience the park and her wider community differently to her peers if this were the case. Others started discussing the impact this might have on other contexts – one person flagged that she may have experienced racially motivated abuse if she were at a predominantly white school. If so, how might that influence how she experiences the park and her peer group? Are there any other identity-based power structures at play here – such as hegemonic misogyny – within the peer group? How could/should this inform our interventions?

Thinking about Contextual Safeguarding through an intersectional lens has brought up more questions than answers for me around the role power and space have in facilitating safety and risk. How can intersectionality help us to understand how power and identity impact young people’s experiences of context? Considering all of the contexts young people experience within a day, how do feelings of power shift and change as young people move through the world based on their intersecting identities in these spaces? How can we utilise this knowledge of young people’s varying experiences of power in different contexts to help keep them safe?

Reflexivity and intersectionality

There are levels of structural power held by those of us who work in the field of child protection and this must also remain a central focus (some useful tools are being developed which might help with this). Unpacking power dynamics that maintain structural harm requires a lot of critical thought; identifying and understanding our own positionality – and the power that comes with it – can feel complex, messy, and often uncomfortable. Ultimately though we must ask what we can do to remain reflexive and to consider how this might impact the young people we are working with. If social capital is central to our understanding of how power shifts as young people move through contexts – for example, moving from home, to the bus, to school, to the park etc., then this must include their interactions professionals as well. This reflexivity must - of course - include those of us who research and write about young people.

Acknowledging the importance of power

One way in which we can strengthen our reflexivity is by listening to how young people experience the world and how their intersecting identities play a part in this. I was recently sent a study called ‘Listening to the experts: Getting beyond the headlines to hear what young people want and need to stay safe from violence crime’. As part of this project, topics of identity were brought up. Young people told researchers that carrying weapons made some of them feel safer within their communities, while at the same time, some of them expressed how negative encounters with the police led to feelings of helplessness and confliction:

“I have been stopped and searched for no reason. I think it was because of the race card. It is like the police have something over you. But at the same time we need to police.’

This example encapsulates how important it is for us to have an understanding of structural inequality and how this feeds into young people’s feelings of power within the contexts they move through. How do race and gender – as just some of the identities young people hold - play into encounters with the police? What could be the implications of this when we are trying to build trust with young people and keep them safe? If a young person feels that a knife grants them more protection than a police presence, then we cannot ignore that this will have a drastic impact on the way in which harm manifests, the level of risk they could face, and how they might interact with police. We know that heightened police presence – as an intervention – does not equal feelings of safety for all young people. It might for some, but it certainly does not for others.

By acknowledging the importance of how feelings of power/disempowerment follow young people throughout their lives, we may begin to understand more about how they experience, and operate within, different contexts. Intersectional feminist theory is of course just one tool we can use to do this. Asking questions about how intersecting identities may influence the ways young people experience the world can feel confronting and uncomfortable. Yet if we accept that certain identities hold more power in a wider sense – dis(ability), gender, race, poverty etc. - then perhaps we can use this lens to help us understand how individual young people experience the contexts we seek to make safer.

Posted: 14 May 2021

Author: Lauren Wroe

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