The Problem with Women’s Centres

Paint it pink and state ’empowerment’ and the funding and support will come.

But what exactly are people supporting?

The growing push for prison abolitionism has made the fatal error of ignoring the critiques of the ‘radical alternatives’. The harms of prison are merely being displaced and reproduced in community settings.

Women’s centres should not be part of the criminal justice system. 

Mo Mansfield gives a wonderful Ted X talk on ‘Funded Out Money and the Women’s Voluntary Sector’ here. Please watch and share it.

We need to challenge structural inequalities and we need to equip women with critical thinking skills to challenge the oppression they face. Instead, such centres are creating compliant women. “The women’s sector has been co-opted by the government” states Mo Mansfield, and “we have been too meshed in the criminal justice system”. Women’s centres have become depoliticised and business-model centred.

I wrote in my 2017 Ph.D thesis that “control is exerted under the guise of protection” (2017, p.29). I quoted Dr Kathleen Kendall (Kendall in Carlton and Segrave, 2013, p. 43) that :

“Perhaps more profoundly, the government’s vision will ultimately result in growing numbers of people competing to participate in the punishment and control of women (and men) in prison and in the community- in essence, to be their sister’s keepers”.

This is not feminist, nor it is empowering.

Dr Kendall continues:

“Overall developments suggest that although some women may gain individually from one-stop-shops, these centres are contributing to an expansion, rather than retraction, of penal policies and infrastructure”.

The critical voice of such centres are lost, and instead the women are ‘bums on seats’, stats through the door, and are infantalized and harmed by the tangled web of governmentality caused by women’s centres and the criminal justice system becoming entwined.

I was delighted to see that the national charity Women in Prison agree with this point:




Women’s centres should not be involved in the punishment of women.

I was delighted to see the announcement that the probation service is to be re-nationalised see here.

The use of unqualified staff in the place of probation officers is extremely troubling and demonstrates how profit has become more important than people.  Pulling up weeds whilst wearing an orange tabard helps nobody bar the people taking the money.

There are several critical criminologist researchers undertaking research in such women’s centres. Nicola Harding a Lecturer in Criminology at Lancaster University has published an excellent paper:

Harding, Nicola (2019) Co-constructing Feminist Research: Ensuring meaningful participation whilst researching the experiences of criminalised women. Methodological Innovations. ISSN 2059-7991 (In Press) which you can access here.

There is also the excellent Dr Kirsty Greenwood.

Harding identifies the many harms of the site she researched, and the neo-liberal logic of self-responsibility rather than attempts to address structural inequalities.

I am working on an ethnographic paper with the working title:

Empowering Women or Controlling Women? A reflection on a Women’s Centre in the North of England (Ahearne, in progress).

Feminist criminologists must step up and critique the role of women’s centres being embedded in the criminal justice system. The empty language of ’empowerment’ is not good enough. I would call upon academics and practitioners with critical concerns to join a small but growing group by contacting me directly. I am also talking to women who have been personally harmed by these centres. If you are researching a vulnerable group who have little to no recourse, then you have a duty to protect them from harm.

I am hoping that Women in Prison and the Howard League for Penal Reform etc will start being openly critical about the dubious relationship between women’s centres and CJS.

I am always open for contact from any interested parties. Please tweet me @princessjack


Gemma x