By: Lori Loftin, NHM Education and Outreach Director
Central to New Hope Midcoast’s work with survivors of domestic abuse, dating violence, and stalking is a lens of empowerment. The Oxford English Dictionary defines empowerment as the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights. The empowerment model has strong roots in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence. This model is survivor-led and committed to finding ways to support survivors that center their autonomy.
People who are abusive seek power and control over other people. Control often includes trying to prevent victims from having agency or choice in their lives. This may include limiting their ability to make financial decisions or restricting their freedom to make what many might consider simple choices: what to wear, who to spend time with, and what to eat.
When survivors share that they are experiencing abuse, they are often urged by well-meaning friends and family to leave their relationships. Sometimes they are encouraged to make other life-altering decisions like moving from their homes, involving the police, or pulling their children out of school. When people, even those with good intentions, give this kind of advice, they position themselves as authorities on the decisions a survivor should (or shouldn’t) make. This can coerce survivors into making choices they might not have otherwise made, reinforcing the dynamics of control they may already be feeling from their abuser. More specifically, this can give survivors the message that they are not capable of making decisions on their own.
What does prioritizing empowerment for survivors look like? Often, it looks as different as possible from how they are treated by the person abusing them. Advocates strive to build up survivors’ inherent strengths in a number of ways. They validate victims' ongoing efforts to survive and stay safe. They provide access to accurate information. They help create choices and present options for paths forward. When survivors work with advocates, they are never told what to do or what decisions to make.
Advocates recognize that survivors are the experts in their own lives. They understand their circumstances and likely understand how best to navigate ongoing abuse. Advocates stay up to date on community resources and receive special training to assist survivors with safety planning. They help remove barriers that prevent survivors from their desired goals. Advocates can best empower survivors by helping them think through their options and assess what safety concerns each choice might create or alleviate, not by advising on which to choose.
When advocates focus on survivors’ choices and empowerment, they avoid unintentionally causing sanctuary harm, a kind of harm done by those in a social service system designed to help. Experiencing sanctuary harm can make survivors less likely and less willing to engage with potential supports and resources in the future. It may also endanger their safety. Working from an empowerment model helps advocates meet survivors where they truly are, not where others might expect them to be. Empowerment means putting survivors' voices and wishes at the center of the conversation. It means respecting survivors’ choices, even when we believe we would not make those choices ourselves. Survivors are the only ones who must live their specific lives, and thus they are best equipped to make decisions about them.
To learn more about this ongoing work, visit www.newhopemidcoast.org/we-can-help/