Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Using an intersectional approach to raid and rescue

Raid and rescue relies on a simplistic understanding of violence and vulnerability. If we are serious about ending gender-based violence, we need to get intersectional in our diagnosis and our response.

Ted Eytan/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Given that our organisation provides services to victims of trafficking, people might assume that we are in favour of raid and rescue. However, the women we work with have made it clear to us that there are serious issues with the raid and rescue approach. Specifically, raid and rescue can further the institutional violence that women face, even in cases where they are supposedly being ‘saved’. If we genuinely wish to help those in need, we need to look beyond both raid and rescue and the simplistic paradigm that promotes it, taking to heart the insights of intersectionality, and using these to develop alternative interventions.

Jane’s story

‘Jane’ was brought to the United States from Nicaragua by an acquaintance, who she believed was going to help her find work. She grew up very poor, and was desperate to find opportunities for advancement; as a transwoman, she had particular trouble finding employment. When she arrived in the US, her passport was taken, and she was immediately forced into the commercial sex trade. Though often moved, Jane was kept in small rooms where she was forced to ‘work’. When she tried to fight back, her trafficker threatened her family. This continued for two years until the police finally raided the apartment building where she was kept and found her along with fifty other women. Jane frantically tried to tell the police her story; however, she did not speak English and was roughly thrown down and handcuffed. The police beat her before taking her into custody, which left her feeling confused, hurt, and angry.

In addition to violence at the hands of law enforcement, she was charged with the RICO Act and locked up with the male population. Her lawyer and advocates attempted to get her out on pre-trial release by searching for a women’s programme to accept her. However, most programmes denied her because she is transgender and a monolingual Spanish speaker. Many of the trafficking shelters also believed the police account and would not take her because of their charges. She eventually found a programme that welcomed her; however, she spent the next two years fighting charges and resisting deportation to Nicaragua. Jane did not feel comfortable pursing the T-visa given to victims of trafficking because of the required contact with law enforcement, and so is currently seeking asylum.

The importance of intersectionality

It should come as no surprise that violence comes in many forms and is a complex issue; however, many service providers have tended to over-simplify it and treat it as a strictly interpersonal affair. This must change. We need to think and design programmes with the feminist theoretical framework of intersectionality in mind.

Michelle Bograd, author of the Domestic Violence at the Margins, argues that ‘We exist in social contexts created by the intersections of systems of power (for example, race, class, gender and sexual orientation) and oppression (prejudice, class stratification, gender inequality, and heterosexist bias)’. In short, intersectionality describes a node of multiple axes of oppression that work together and simultaneously. Therefore, when talking about violence against women, we must also consider race, class, and LGBTQ+ status, ‘as well as a variety of different types of social hierarchies, oppressions, and power relationships’.

When talking about violence against women, we must also consider race, class, and LGBTQ+ status, ‘as well as a variety of different types of social hierarchies, oppressions, and power relationships’.

Violence is not only interpersonal, it is also institutional and political. As Kimberle Crenshaw argues, understanding violence against women means paying attention to structural intersectionality, or the institutional barriers that exist for women of colour and poor women to obtain the services they need. For example, many shelter programmes focus only on the psychological effects of male domination instead of on those pertaining to socioeconomic structures. While addressing psychological trauma is important, it is equally important to address the day-to-day barriers that many women face, like discriminatory housing, policing, and employment practices, which may leave poor women, immigrant women, and women of colour less likely to call on the police when they experience interpersonal violence.

Sometimes one type of violence can precipitate another. Jane experienced interpersonal violence from her trafficker, but in addition she was assaulted and arrested by the police. While most of us have no difficulty recognising Jane’s experience of interpersonal violence at the hands of her trafficker, service providers often ignore institutional violence like that experienced at the hands of her supposed ‘rescuers’.

Institutional violence can take place when survivors like Jane experience assault while in the custody of law enforcement officers. As Angela Davis argues, ‘Prisons are violent institutions…they render women vulnerable in an even more systematic way to the forms of violence they may have experienced in their homes and in their communities’. This was especially true for Jane, as she was housed with the male prison population. And Jane’s experience is not unique. Many women of colour report that they often experience institutional violence when trying to get help for interpersonal violence. When these women reach out for help, they are often criminalised and experience violence at the hands of the very people that are supposed to protect them. They are sent to prisons before they are sent to any other institution. In addition, state violence against women of colour is often downplayed, which in part explains why women from marginalised communities are reluctant to call law enforcement in the first place. They already experience disproportionate institutional violence against their communities.

Many women of colour report that they often experience institutional violence when trying to get help for interpersonal violence.

As a society, we need to be attentive to the many ways of ‘being women’. Transgender women like Jane face different structural obstacles when confronting sexism and transphobia. Transwomen may not experience the same types of violence that cisgender women experience. Furthermore, programmes designed to help women often deny services to transgender women. This means that programmes designed for violence against women can fail to help those at high risk of experiencing violence and can in fact reproduce structural violences by denying access. This is something that must be addressed and changed.

New programming

So how can we work to create programmes that take an intersectional approach to violence against women? To start, programmes must stop their heavy reliance on the police for survivor protection as this alienates immigrant communities and communities of colour. Also, we can create bottom-up programmes that serve the most marginalised populations with these populations themselves. Furthermore, we should give survivors a voice and a choice in what programmes are made available. We should make sure that advocates and service providers are trained to be culturally aware, aware that not all women are cisgender, and aware that citizenship status may make some less likely to seek or desire certain services. We should work to make programmes more accessible and have them staffed by people from a variety of backgrounds perspectives. Ultimately, all of this will be a far cry from the standard, hegemonic, raid and rescue simplicity.

About the author

Toni Eby is Operations Manager of San Francisco SafeHouse, an eighteen-month transitional housing facility for homeless women escaping sex trafficking, prostitution, and other situations of sexual exploitation. We offer intensive case management, therapy, and support groups. We believe that women are the experts in their own lives and know what is best for them.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.