December 16, 2020

The Criminalisation of Poverty: A Focus on Women

Reflections from Dr Ella Holdsworth on The Criminalisation of Poverty: A Focus on Women. This seminar was hosted by Dr Ally Walsh, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds on 11th November 2020. Scholars, practitioners, and activists gathered to understand and illuminate the specific experiences of women in relation to increasingly violent austerity policies and penal systems. Presentations were given by: Dr Emma Wincup, Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Dr Sarah Bartley, University of Reading; and Chiedza Chinhanu, University of Leeds.

On 6th November, scholars, practitioners and activists gathered virtually for the Women/Theatre/Justice seminar. Delegates shared their knowledge and expertise from a broad range of organisations and perspectives, including academics, theatre practitioners, charities responding to poverty and organisations providing services to criminalised women. Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) Dr Emma Wincup explained how poverty impacts upon women specifically. This was followed by academic insights from Chiedza Chinhanu, who highlighted practices of sharing experiences in Zimbabwean women’s prisons, and Dr Sarah Bartley, who considered depictions of women’s poverty and criminalisation through theatre and performance. Delegates then had the opportunity to share with others their unique understanding of the criminalisation of poverty from their own perspectives and were able to consider the perspectives of others. What follows are some reflections of discussions which took place during the seminar.


The impact of criminalisation and poverty on women’s lives

We gained an insight into the wide-reaching effects of poverty on the lives of women, in terms of their realities and their emotional impact. We learnt that inequalities exist in women’s capacity to generate independent income, underpinned by caring responsibilities. These circumstances are strong drivers to women’s poverty and the disadvantages continue throughout the courses of women’s lives.  Experiences of poverty permeate through all areas of life, from insecure housing, choices over ‘eating or heating’ and exclusion from cultural and personal events, down to the minutiae of everyday life, such as being unable to afford a bus fare or buy a cup of coffee. This lived reality of poverty is often experienced alongside stigma from reliance on social security, a narrative which has become ever more potent in recent years. Poverty stigma is exacerbated by the stigma of criminalisation, which takes on additional resonance for women. Frances Heidensohn first described criminalised women as ‘doubly deviant’ 35 years ago, by not only breaking behavioural rules of society by committing offence but also acting against the female stereotype and the view of a ‘normal woman’. The impact of motherhood on feelings of stigma are also prominent. Chiedza Chinhanu explained how she found in her research that concerns among imprisoned women in Zimbabwe about being regarded a ‘good mother’ eclipsed concerns about being seen as a ‘good woman’. While we can argue that the assessment that women are ‘doubly deviant’ still rings true today, we should recognise that experiences of criminalisation are deeply interconnected with poverty and are in many cases impossible to extrapolate from each other.


Depicting lived experience of crime and poverty

Theatre performance provides a vital opportunity to highlight and illustrate the lived experiences of poverty and criminalisation and bring everyday details to life directly from the authentic voices of those with lived experience. As we learnt in the seminar, there is a long history of theatre productions which aim to highlight the experiences of criminalised women through the Clean Break Theatre Company. Productions provide a voice and a platform to share their experiences of the criminal justice system to different audiences and in ways that may otherwise not be heard. This provides a powerful medium to portray detailed and accurate accounts of the challenges women face when navigating the criminal justice system. A similar approach has also been adopted by JRF, who have recently produced short films This is Poverty  and Fighting Shame, aimed at depicting the lived realities of poverty in contemporary Britain.

Seminar discussions challenged us to examine the purposes and the advantages of shining a spotlight on criminalised women and experiences of poverty through performance. While the use of performance allows marginalised voices to be heard, it is also an important tool to counteract negative depictions of those living in poverty, known as ‘poverty porn’, that have frequented television schedules in recent years. Productions which place lived experiences directly at the centre of the performance have the potential to focus away from the negative blame culture which surrounds public discourse and policy, towards a more empathetic approach to the struggles faced, which is desperately needed. Resetting public discourse in this way can make strides towards influencing and addressing negative social policy in this area.


Whose stories are being told?

With poverty rates rising in Britain, particularly in the wake of COVID 19, it is now more important than ever to hear the voices of those with lived realities of poverty. However, we need to be aware of and avoid ‘othering’ those with lived experience and instead recognise criminalisation and poverty as societal issues that everyone should take account of, regardless of their circumstances. Future productions should be mindful of how to ensure that performance is empowering for those who share their stories. Rather than simply depicting the stories of others, it is important that those with lived experience are fully involved in all stages of the production. We heard about some great examples of this in the seminar, which shows a firm foundation upon which to build. The challenge for the future is to ensure that we continue to use performance as an effective and engaging source of knowledge and empowerment for women with lived experience of poverty and criminalisation.


Dr Ella Holdsworth is a researcher in criminal justice, with an interest in experiences of sentences and how gender and diversity impacts upon them. Her PhD explored the experiences of women who had been electronically monitored as part of a community sentence. She can be contacted by Twitter @EllaHoldsworth and LinkedIn