Bearing witness

You can probably tell I am coming to the end of a long period of annual leave (5 glorious weeks to be exact). My mind is clearer and I am re-energised and motivated.

My husband took this photo of me today, and it made me think.

Good charities and orgs want their clients to develop confidence and to walk away on their own path. They will proudly watch their clientele fly the nest. It is part of providing a good service with qualified case workers and other staff. 

Other charities want co-dependent clients who can’t move on. Those trapped in the system provide funding through the ‘bums on seats’ method.

The ‘rescue industry’ is a term coined by Dr Laura Agustin and refers to the sex industry and ‘anti trafficking’ orgs. However the term can be applied to other charities and initiatives.

Today my twitter timeline was full of an American influencer sharing some ‘anti trafficking’ propaganda. Common sense understandings tells us that ‘trafficking’ is bad and therefore ‘anti trafficking orgs’ are good. Critical thinking is a lot harder. To look at the hostile immigration policies, the prison industrial complex, the criminalizing of sex workers (often through the backdoor) is a lot harder to sum up in a tweet or a slogan.

I shared this Vice video that shows the reality of ‘Project Rose’, a diversion program that coerces women with the choice of arrest or engaging in their service. Sound familiar? You may think ‘well it is better than prison’, well watch this video.  I love that woman at 7:46 who tells them to stuff it, and declines to take part. She is my hero! 


‘Anti trafficking’ campaigns are everywhere at the moment, fulled by the multi-million dollar trafficking organizations and the influencers who naively disseminate their zombie stats and narratives.

I shared this Vice video which depicts how Cambodian sex workers are treated through ‘anti trafficking’ raids. Dragged from brothels and coerced to work in factories making clothing for the west. Traumatized by police and exploited in the garment industry. Where are the anti-trafficking orgs when these women are being exploited in domestic service and factory work? Where are these orgs when women are raped by the state and robbed by clients? 



The white middle class blueprint of ‘good womanhood’ is pushed onto women. This is echoed in our criminal justice system, where there is a very narrow understanding of women (Harding, 2020; Greenwood, 2019).

The good charities want healthy dissent and the opportunity to critically think and grow. The exploitative charities want to continue as they are, for their own benefit. Women who are seen to be ‘redeemed’ are cherry picked and wheeled out for the media and for award ceremonies. What then for the women who disclose bullying, abuse and the failings of the system? Where is their opportunity to speak?

As I wrote in my previous blog post here participants in Greenwood’s study called the unpaid work ‘slave labour’ and none of the women interviewed felt ’empowered’. Likewise, in Harding’s 2020 paper see here women are under pressure to dismiss trauma in order to perform ‘reformed’ identities. 

Harding speaks of senior empowerment worker Nat stating: “Nat fails to acknowledge the role of victimisation and trauma in the criminalisation of women… Nat’s opinions meant that she could not situate the women as victims of criminalisation, nor accept that the process of criminalisation itself produced trauma. Therefore, she could not offer herself as a therapeutic bystander to participate in the process of bearing witness. If Nat had remained present throughout all of the stages of research, it is unlikely that due to her dominant perspective and the power this held, that the research space could have facilitated interactions that could be considered as bearing witness” (Harding, 2020).

Bearing witness is key when working with women and trauma. Not trying to transform them into the womanhood we desire, or seeing ourselves as a standard to measure other women against. We need to listen to what they say traumatizes them. We need to sit with their trauma in all its messiness. Otherwise we are telling women that their trauma does not matter.

This is why I recommend here that only qualified staff work in such services. For every woman who feels helped, others feel bullied, dominated and (re) traumatized. 

If we are happy to see vulnerable women including pregnant women humiliated wearing orange tabards in the pouring rain, then we are complicit with the violence of the state. If we are happy to see ‘trafficked victims’ dragged out of brothels and forced into factory work, then we are the problem. Good charities challenge the government regardless of their funding streams, they are political and they always bear witness to the pain and suffering of women. They do not coerce, cajole, undermine and patronise. Nor do they act aggressively when they are respectfully challenged.

It is not enough to say this this is a ‘better’ alternative than prison, we must also allow the women to verbalise how the criminal justice system as a whole is a site of trauma. At how wearing a jacket of spectacle in your home town, with people laughing at you and being aggressive, is reinforcing the layers of trauma these women have experienced. How it further stigmatizes them and how this impacts their already low self-esteem. 


(Photo courtesy of Dr Nicola Harding 2020. You can read Harding’s latest journal article here ). 

It is not easy to bear witness, to stand with the oppressed, the underdog. It would be far easier to go with the simplistic slogans and glitter wish jars. But it is the job of critical feminist criminologists to sit in the messiness and make sense from it. To be critically minded and campaign alongside the marginalized and oppressed.

As always much respect to all the women have have shared their stories with me.

Gemma x