Sisters’ Keepers: The Case of Women’s Centres


Thank you to fellow researchers in the field who have supported my writing and encouraged me with many phone calls and messages There is incredible talent in this field. In particular thank you NH, AHS, KG, TA, EJ.

Also thank you to all the Gender and Crime seminar students- you taught me a lot in our lively debates. Thanks to my dissertation students with whom I often chatted about the issue of women’s centres. Teaching is the space where writing is created.

Further thank you to all of the brave women who have spoken to me. Those who have attended as clients, practitioners who have raised concerns and volunteers. Speaking truth to power is more necessary than ever before. 

***Update- Thank you also to the editors and publishers of the book where this is bgeing published in Autumn 2022***

I have previously written about women’ centres here on my blog.


The Corston Report (2007) was a key moment for (re) imagining women’s experiences of the criminal justice system and the need for gender-specific reform. Though much has been critiqued since the report’s publication, it represents a watershed moment in feminist criminological campaigning for alternatives to women’s imprisonment. Though women’s centres existed before Corston, it was only after the report that their role as authentic alternatives to prison was legitimized. In short, the decades of feminist campaigning and international feminist scholarship was brought mainstream by Corston’s interception. Women’s centre clientele consist of women who go there freely, non-statutory, and those who are ordered to go there by the court, statutory. As such the centre performs conflicting roles, on one hand it is there to support women by offering domestic violence support, education courses, free food, sanitary products, counselling and free legal advice, and on the other hand it is there to punish women. This paradox cannot be ignored, for women who go there on a statutory basis experience many of the pains of imprisonment, simply displaced on this alternative site. The idea that if something is painted pink and has the tagline of ‘empowering women’ then it is helping women, is not only harmful but is simplistic and dangerous. 

This article will draw from notes and observations during my time of paid employment in a women’s centre. I will refer to the women’s centre in the North of England by using the pseudonym River Centre (RC). I will interrogate the complexities of a space occupying multiple conflicting roles in a woman’s life, and expand upon the need for radical trauma-informed gendered care. Gender-responsive practice is frequently criticised for failing to recognise the heterogeneity of women (Moore and Scraton, 2014;  Shaw and Hannah-Moffat, 2011). All women who entered RC as either statutory users or non-statutory were treated as if they were homogeneous McWomen. There was no accounting for individual preferences or opportunities to state what services or treatment that would prefer. For women who are already marginalised and struggling to make assertive decisions this consolidates their oppressed status. HMI Probation notes that there is insufficient  understanding of individuals’ personal situations and diversity planning (HMI Probation, 2020). 

Spaces of Surveillance 

The centre alleges it receives over 600 visitors a week, although many of these are repeat visitors, i..e the same women often attend every day of the week. They sign in through electronic log in at the reception of the centre after accessing RC through an intercom door. During busy times, or when staff are chatting, the women are left standing outside queuing to get inside. The women’s centre is in the building that once housed a school which adds to the backdrop of infantilization and control. The main space consists of a large community room with an attached kitchen, this space is open and there are no quiet corners to hide away and discuss matters privately. The women must meet with their Empowerment Advisors (EAs) in full view of everybody else where anybody can hear their private conversations. The centre is known for its ability to provide support relating to domestic violence (DV) and women are signposted through GP surgeries, the council, police, and frequent networking events in the community. It is very much seen as a ‘one stop shop’ where women can get benefit and housing advice, see a solicitor for free, access counselling and receive support for their status as a victim. The very nature of the centre’s funding relies on footfall, and therefore they need “bums on seats” (Harding, 2020a, 2020). Therefore friendships that meet outside the centre are discouraged by the EAs who hover around the community room keeping the women under constant surveillance. The women are also discouraged from exchanging phone numbers. The centre relies upon the women being and remaining dependent upon their services. This raises serious questions about funding, which have been echoed by other NGOs in the sector. This is not something I have witnessed in other women’s charities, where women are actively encouraged to make friendships and ‘move on’ from the service with guided support.

(Re) Traumatization

The Howard League for Penal Reform argued that the privatization of the probation service meant that many CRCs would not fund one-on-one casework with women, and instead women were subjected to group activities (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2016, pp.3-4). Women services users tend to respond well to one-on-one sessions as they can build personal trusting relationships and not have to reveal distressing experiences in front of strangers (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2016). At RC, women who are statutory service users are required to attend probation appointments that complete an amount of ‘RARS’ (Rehabilitation Action Requirement). The monthly timetable has an ‘R’ in the boxes of the activities that can count towards this requirement. However offender managers also have the authority to use their discretion. For instance counselling sessions may count towards this requirement, in addition to courses on substance addiction, domestic violence, happy homes, etc. Many of these services are provided by partnership organizations, but many are run by in-house staff with no teaching or professional qualifications. 

Courses on domestic violence are run by unqualified staff, and whilst the staff are friendly and well-meaning the triggering nature of the material and the lack of psychological training and safeguarding means that vulnerable women can be harmed by such courses. There is a distinct lack of understanding of trauma (Harding, 2020a, 2020) and instead women are encouraged to think positively and focus on ‘choice’. Women who are deemed to take up too much time of the Empowerment Advisors (case workers and gate keepers to services) are heavily criticized and instead women are herded into groups. This is completely inappropriate for women suffering from multiple mental health illnesses and traumas, and instead underpins a ‘tick box’ culture whereby funding is granted on footfall and stats. The domestic violence courses at RC are designed and delivered by a staff member who asserts that she herself was a victim of domestic abuse. This (re)emphasises a choice rhetoric and a ‘I can do it, and so can you’ narrative that does not address the complex and structural restraints that keep women in abusive relationships. Nor does it account for coercive control and the multiple traumas that women experience throughout their lifetime. Whilst I am not claiming that women’s mental health should absolve them of any responsibility, the correct and qualified staff should be appropriated. 

The centre operates within a paternalistic framework, and it is unclear what courses would benefit a professional woman who would dismiss a class making glitter wish jars or other unaccredited courses. HMI Probation argue that across Merseyside there is insufficient understanding of domestic violence and safeguarding risks in service delivery (HMI Probation, 2020). Likewise, RC demonstrated poor awareness of individuals’ risk to self and how to adequately safeguard them, this is also echoed in the report (HMI Probation, 2020). Talking to former staff has emphasised this point with serious concerns raised over the lack of safeguarding training and paperwork. 

Responsibilization Agenda and being Their ‘Sisters’ Keeper’

The privatization of probation services and the increasing competition for funding has no doubt fuelled the neoliberal self-responsibilization agenda. The dominant narrative is that women must make the ‘choice’ to change (Ahearme, 2016; Harding, 2020). Staff member Carol told me  “I used to feel bad about spending money on whatever I want and having a nice, good life. But it’s their [the women’s] life choices to live the way they do/ It’s their choice”. Viewing the women’s circumstances through the lens of choice, removes the harms and traumas that they have endured. It legitimizes dealing with the women through the criminal justice system and an enforcement framework. Due to the nature of much of the centre’s funding, RC do not allow criticism of the government or the punitive welfare regime, namely the rolling out of Universal Credit. This is another example of the centre ignoring the structural barriers that women face and the poverty they endure. RC had a plan to have a speaker from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as opposed to any speaker from charities who would criticise the welfare reforms.This serves to silence women’s suffering and not give the women the opportunity to be critically minded and push back at the state. This serves to silence women’s suffering and not give the women the opportunity to be critically minded.

Garland describes responsibilization strategies as the central government acting upon crime in a non-direct fashion through state agencies, but instead acting indirectly, seeking to activate action on behalf of non-state agencies and organizations (Garland, 1996, p. 452). Hannah-Moffat suggests that whilst the use of other agencies and volunteers in the role of punishment is not new, the relationship between the state and those agencies have changed (Hannah-Moffat, 2000, p. 514). These new partnerships allow the government to govern ‘at a distance’ ( bid). The dismissal of the women’s individual experiences at the centre and the lack of empathy can be framed in this way. A feminist criminological perspective must seem to critique all of those services who do not seek to reform the patriarchal lens through which we judge women’s reformation, else we merely replicate it in other sites. Given that these one-stop-shops hold access to a variety of help from legal advice, housing help, police drop-ins and substance support groups, it stands to reason that some women feel cajoled into attending in order to access the service/s they require. Control is exerted under the guise of ‘protection’ and monetary funds awarded to community-based interventions that women are required to attend (Ahearne, 2017, p.30). Kendal argues that ‘…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 the community- in essence, to be their sisters’ keepers’ (Kendal cited in Carlton and Segrave, 2013, p. 43).

Whilst non-custodial sentencing is a positive step, the fear is that structural factors that inform women’s experiences with crime go ignored. This is something that I experienced throughout RC.  Corston herself admits that community sentencing is not a soft-touch approach, women often find it harder than custodial (Corston, 2007). The women undertaking their community hours at RC do so under the Community Payback scheme, which the CEO of RC states is a ‘punitive approach’. The specific problem for women who undergo Community Payback and/or complete their Rehabilitation Action Requirement (RARS) through the courses available at RC, is that should they wish to continue gaining support, they cannot remove themselves from the space of their punishment. In this way, women may never symbolically leave the site of punishment. The public performance of women performing menial labour in bright orange tabards is a public performance of incarceration and punishment as a spectacle to warn others of how to behave.The tabards also act as a form of social isolation when the women are on breaks inside the communal areas of RC. The tabards are humiliating and demeaning and add to the women’s sense of anxiety and displacement (Harding, 2020a, 2020). I was told by an EA that I was too ‘smiley’ with the women who perform tasks such as cleaning toilets, windows and also garden work. This spectacle of punishment also questions the suitability of such centres for non-stat women, many of whom have serious health problems. 

If women were stuck at home looking after a sick child or if they had issues with childcare letting them down, then they could not complete their hours. For women with anxiety and other mental health problems, knowing they would get such a blunt response is not helpful. One woman phoned me, stating that she had tried to phone her offender manager but could not get through. The woman spoke through tears as she said that she knew she would be penalised, but just wanted to speak to someone to apologise. Despite other staff members’ insistence that she ‘always cancelled’, with 3 young children at home with sickness and childcare issues, how can a women’s centre be so dismissive? Likewise, some women cannot afford to pay for childcare and therefore find it impossible to complete their hours. It cannot be a successful regime that forces mothers to choose between caring for their sick child, or picking up litter for 8 hours. Again, it was seen as the women’s ‘choice’ for not coming in (McCracken, 2013). This fixation on women completing their hours has also been criticised by HMI probation, who state that in the women’s centre the primary focus on the completion of unpaid work was sometimes at the cost of the work to not re-offend. This then leads to the RAR days not being able to be completed, and that needs to then be altered in court (HMI Probation). 

This dismissive notion of ‘choice’ is repeated in Harding’s study (2010a, 2020), with a senior EA called Nat in her study kept interjecting with the response “that was your choice though” when women recounted their experiences. This simplistic understanding of choice, free from external constraints and structural inequalities is part of the neo-liberal regime. McCracken argues that the ‘responsibility to change’  is put on the women and removed from the structural inequalities and context of feminized poverty in the punitive welfare state (McCracken, 2013, p.83). This reiterates Corston’s remarks about choice. Kendall argues that the increased involvement of the voluntary sector within the criminal justice system in community-based programmes has ‘entangled non-government and government agents in a hybridized widening net of governance’ (Kendall in Carlton and Segrave, 2013, p. 45). We must critique and consider the complicated regimes of regulation, and how the government increasingly operates at a distance, using other actors to exert forms of surveillance and control, This is not to deny that some women may personally benefit from women’s centres, but to emphasise that they represent an expansion and net-widening of penal practices and infrastructure (Ahearne, 2017, p.37; Carlton and Segrave, 2013, p.43).

Whilst RC cannot criminalise non-statutory women who attend, the failure to address structural marginalisation increases women’s dependence on the centre for social support (Greenwood, 2019) and the precarious funding of the service forces it to rely upon the continued engagement of clients. This means that the centre effectively becomes a site of encouraged containment for vulnerable women. RC can be understood as being a holding pen for women, this can be read through the livestock language of herding the women around into various holding pens such as the community room or the fitness hall, and the senior EA wanting to “keep them moving through” the building into their rightful sessions. Women lulling about the place are not bums on seats, and will not guarantee funding against the alleged successes of the courses. All women who attend are under the penal gaze and their behaviour is monitored and regulated. A participant in Greenwood’s study emphasises this, stating that the EA wants the women to be doing courses ‘all the time’ (Greenwood, 2019). The focus here is not on meaningful change or course that provide genuine benefit, but rather as a tick box exercise.

Mental health

RC does not have a good understanding of mental health. Women who present with explicit mental health needs are seen as problematic and/or ‘attention seeking’, this has been a shared observation of former staff, researchers, clients and volunteers. Whilst I agree that the centre is not the appropriate place for a woman experiencing serious or acute mental health problems, the women should be signposted on confidentially and staff should not be openly criticizing the women in corridors.  I would advise that  women at risk have a care plan in place, and that a nominated EA could liaise with the women’s GP surgeries. Clear strategies can be observed in other charities.  The complete lack of empathy and stigmatization of mental health left me feeling shocked and angry. This was repeated throughout the staff in the centre. As Greenwood articulates, many women attend such centres voluntarily as their only form of social interaction (Greenwood, 2019). This includes women with learning difficulties and early-onset dementia. The lack of understanding, empathy and safeguarding for such women is of grave concern and represents a clear safeguarding issue and the potential for bullying and abuse (this has been echoed by women working throughout the sector in addition to academics).

Women are not encouraged to talk about their trauma or distress openly, other than in the courses and at counselling. Even in the case of the courses, there is a mould that the women are expected to fit into. It is all part of the ‘happy’ facade of the centre, that everything should be light and cheery wherever possible. This means that women are not given the opportunity to develop assertive thinking skills, and the ability to locate and name their own trauma. Nor are they allowed to speak back to the criminal justice system or social inequalities that are also a source of violence to them. Harding argues that women attending a women’s centre undertaking community punishment are not afforded ‘free time’ to reflect, discuss and be heard in the way that healing from trauma allows (Harding, 2020), at RC, this was an experience also shared by non-stat women. Serious faces were dismissed with “come on, put a smile on” and even a woman trying to have a quiet ten minutes alone with a cup of tea would find her attempts at solace punctuated with the roars of faux laughter from an EA and invitations to ‘do’ something. RC likes the women to constantly be in motion, even if that means signing up to the same course four or five times. It is this repetitive action of being kept busy that the centre pushes. 

During Harding’s landmark study she shares photo maps drawn by participants, including a senior EA worker in a women’s centre called Nat (Harding, 2010a, 2020). Nat’s image shows a binary understanding of the ‘good path’ that she chose to take, as opposed to the ‘bad’ path she could have gone down.  As Harding rightly argues,the image stresses the importance of choice, “flattening the distinct and layered oppression and social inequality experienced by criminalised women “(Harding, 2020). Harding also argues that as such,Nat cannot see the women are victims of trauma, and she certainly cannot see criminalization as a site of trauma. Senior empowerment workers oversee that work of those EA underneath them, and they work directly in contact with the probation team who are housed in the same building. They ensure that the community payback hours are completed, standing over the women as they weed the communal garden, and driving the van when the women are taken out to public spaces to paint fences. During my time at RC I saw the women completing their unpaid work being treated with disdain. One morning a toilet broke, and an unwell woman battling a heavy cold was on the floor scrubbing the floor with bleach. When I asked her if she was ok, she expressed shock because “none of the others talk to us”. The lack of health and safety standards for physical safety was evident in this centre in my observation in addition to a lack of safeguarding for mental health and distress.

The erasure of vulnerability

Women in the criminal justice system occupy a liminal space as being presented as deviant, yet also as vulnerable. They are also presented as being uniquely vulnerable yet having their vulnerability erased (Ahearne, 2019; 2016). Drawing from the work of Brown (2017) this vulnerability framework can be applied to the women who attend RC both in a voluntary and a court-ordered capacity. In the case of women’s centres women are paradoxically understood as being vulnerable, yet also having their trauma ignored due to the self-responsibilization agenda. Whilst much of this simplistic dismissal of trauma is instigated by the funding model (Greenwood, 2019) it also speaks to the white middle-class feminist agenda that dominates feminism (Phipps, 2020) and in turn underpins gender-responsive reform (Corston, 2007; Hannah-Moffat & Shaw, 2000). One of the tenants of RC is the tagline women empowering women. Whilst the notion of ‘empowerment’ is much-contested and has become a cheap buzzword for gender-responsive strategies, it is clear that in my experience and that of  other researchers, that the concept of ‘empowerment’ needs revisiting. We also need to consider a decolonization lens in a sector full of white middle-class women without lived experience. In Greenwood’s study, the women completing unpaid work as part of their community orders were asked if they felt empowered, and all participants answered no. Examples included pregnant women being made to complete their unpaid work in the pouring rain, and one participant asserting that the unpaid work was “slave labour” (Greenwood, 2019, p.222). We need to understand women in the CJS as being vulnerable, and ensure that they can disclose when they are being harmed.


It is clear that women cannot be punished and helped in the same place. Women’s centres who double-up as sites where unpaid work take place are replicating the harms of custodial settings. Trauma and safeguarding must underpin all service and money must be invested in qualified properly-paid staff. The push for alternatives to women’s imprisonment has meant a lack of critique of the harms of alternatives. I recommend a radical overhaul of women’s centres that centre around best practice. There are some brilliant women’s centres and charities fighting for change- they should be at the heart of this radical overhaul. It is crucial that probation is re-nationalized and that qualified and talented probation staff can work with complex and often high-risk women. I recognise that a multi-agency approach and an inter-disciplinary approach is needed.


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Brown, K. (2017) The Governance of Vulnerability: regulation, support and social divisions in action, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 37, 11-12, pp. 667-682

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