Academic journal article Social Work

Choice and Empowerment for Battered Women Who Stay: Toward a Constructivist Model

Academic journal article Social Work

Choice and Empowerment for Battered Women Who Stay: Toward a Constructivist Model

Article excerpt

This article examines the individual and social construction of empowerment for battered women who choose to stay with their abusers through a critical examination of the images of battered women who stay, constructed in the professional literature on various ecological levels, and a proposal of a constructivist model for empowering battered women who choose to stay that balances between their needs and rights. The model includes dimensions of physical and emotional distance as well as a time dimension. Key themes related to battered women's options along these dimensions are presented.

Key words: battered women; constructivist perspective; empowerment; intervention

During the past two decades, campaigns aimed at enhancing public awareness about the social problem of violence against women have brought mixed results. Although there is no doubt that public and professional awareness of the problem has increased, violence against women is far from being eradicated. In the process of giving social recognition and visibility to the phenomenon as a social problem, dramatization, simplification, and homogenization are inevitable (Loseke, 1992). Thus, the tactics that proved useful in promoting the problem of woman battering also have created new myths and injustices. One such myth is the stigmatization of battered women who stay in relationships with their abusers as a deviant group: "battered women who stay" (Loseke & Cahill, 1984).

Some battered women are reported to marry their abuser, despite knowing that they are violent before the marriage (Roscoe & Benaske, 1985). Other women stay in a relationship with their abusers for many years (HoltzworthMunroe, Smutzler, & Sandin, 1997; Okun, 1986; Schwartz, 1988). Still others are found to leave and then return to their abuser. For example, several studies have found that 50 percent to 60 percent of battered women were living with their abusers after discharge from a shelter (Giles-Sims, 1983; Okun, 1988; Snyder & Scheer, 1981; Strube, 1988). These women often are characterized as incompetent, weak, and lacking coping skills, which further engulf them in the victim role and contribute to their powerlessness. Social workers, one of the main service providers to battered women (Edleson, 1991; Hamilton & Coates, 1993), share with other advocates and counselors the responsibility for the stigmatization of battered women who stay and for ways to empower this client population.

Empowerment is a key concept in modern social work (Elliott, 1997). However it remains too often prescriptive and ideological rather than descriptive and practical (Payne, 1991), partially because of problems in operationalizing "empowering practice." Underlying this article is an operational definition of empowerment as a process of enabling people to master their environments and achieve self-determination (Simmons & Parsons, 1983). Such practice facilitates the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and emotional as well as material resources by which personally meaningful social roles are fulfilled (Solomon, 1976). The definition implies the existence of an empowering agent and an empowered actor involved in a growth process within a social power structure. Empowerment as we understand it consists of "needs" and "rights" dimensions. A person is empowered to the extent to which her or his needs are translated into rights. Implementation of this translation is a function of the extent of responsibility taken by both empowering agents and potentially empowered people. Thus, facilitating the empowerment of battered women who choose to stay with an abusive partner presents social workers with formidable, practical, ethical, and philosophical challenges (Payne, 1991).

Both needs and rights are psychologically and socially constructed. Schwandt (1994, 1997), in defining constructivism, emphasized that people's construction of reality is both individual and collective. …

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