Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

What's Her Story: Understanding the Life Story of a Female Offender within the South African Context

Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

What's Her Story: Understanding the Life Story of a Female Offender within the South African Context

Article excerpt

Mainstream criminological, feminist, sociologists and historians emphasise the role, typology and provide accounts of the reasons for female involvement in crime. This concern is taking place within a broader context of increasing numbers of women who end up confined to institutions of incarceration. While existing research on women in South African correctional centres has enabled researchers to map-out the routes to criminality among women, more often the empirical approaches adopted lead to generalisations that do not reveal the complex contexts and lived existential circumstances of the women who find themselves in institutions of incarceration. This paper seeks to do two things. First, it provides a critique of the empiricist nature of studies conducted on women in prison. Second, it deploys a life histories approach to understand female criminality in South Africa. The research is based on empirical data gathered from three correctional centres in Johannesburg, Thohoyandou and East London Correctional Centres. The author posits that a life histories approach has two advantages. First, life histories approach avoids the danger of generalisations that ignores contextual issues. Second, life histories approach assumes a bottom up format that empathises with the narratives of the incarcerated women.

The proliferation of literature on the circumstances that lead women to offending is vast. A majority of this literature is generated by Euro-Western centred scholars and has become authoritative in providing a guiding framework to explain female offending. To date, few studies emanate from South Africa rendering the female offender an absent present. As a result, a formulation of taken for granted assumptions about the female offender as an African subject, her subjection, and subjectivity persists. This is because such formulations are not rooted in African realities and do not centre the story of the woman herself. Given this, the main focus of this paper is to argue for the importance and significance of life histories in illuminating the circumstances that lead women to prison. First the paper provides a critique of existing literature on female offending. This is followed by an outline of the methodological framework which explores the contribution of the life histories approach on the subject of female offending. Thirdly, a sample and context in which the study was conducted is explained. Fourth, given the lack of consolidated efforts made by scholars to examine the phenomena within its broader context, the researcher provides a snapshot overview of the life circumstances that lead women to female offending. The overall objective is to contribute to knowledge generation by turning the woman offender into a subject who is an expert in her life trajectoiy.

Literature Overview

What is intriguing about studies conducted on female offending in South Africa is the absence of the voices of women in the debates. Often described as women from poor backgrounds, single, or divorced, with limited educational backgrounds and thus sporadic employment histories, women are not given space to explain their circumstances (Haffejee, Vetten & Greyling, 2006; Artz, 2012). What then is available are these diy generalisations which do not explain the genealogy of a female offender. This is often because the stories are not told by women themselves rendering the suppression of the lived realities and sociocultural circumstances that expose women to multiple subjectivities and vulnerabilities within the society and institutions that are supposed to mediate these realities. Therefore, the universal categories or depictions of women are essentialised as little attempt is made to understand each woman's individual circumstances vis-a-vis the eveiyday forms of resistance. This oversight therefore leads one to ponder what the role of a criminologist given these accepted generalisations and universalisms. Even Adler as far back as 1981 remarked "hardest to tell is the stoiy of the African experience". …

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