Rethinking feminist approaches to gender-based violence

  • May 20, 2024
Rethinking feminist approaches to gender-based violence

Ilaria Michelis talks about her research into gender-based violence, based on years of working in the humanitarian space

Knowledge alone is not enough to enact change. We need people to come together and push collectively to change things. We need to be able to develop tools that lead to meaningful action that changes some of the rules of the game.

Ilaria Michelis

Ilaria Michelis [2019] was completely surprised when, earlier this year, she was awarded this year’s Journal of Gender Studies Janet Blackman Prize. The Prize celebrates scholarship on international feminist movements and trade unions/women in work. 

It was awarded for an article she published the year before in the Journal of Gender Studies based on an issue she covered in her PhD. Her article, Contesting gender: young women and feminist generations in gender-based violence services, argues that narratives of generational conflict, despite being frequently deployed by activists themselves, obfuscate a genuine struggle to redefine the subject of feminism and extend feminist solidarity to trans women and other marginalised groups. 

Ilaria says she was completely surprised by winning the prize. “It was my first academic article from my PhD and as such it was very validating that the work I am doing is resonating,” she says. She feels the current divisions about the trans issue are wrapped up in a generational discourse that allows each side to dismiss the other without allowing a space where genuine conversations about how feminism can evolve .  

The issue is not central to her PhD thesis, but at the heart of it is finding a space for different viewpoints. “We need to have more of these conversations,” says Ilaria, “so everyone remains engaged.”

Humanitarian work

Ilaria’s PhD grew out of her 11 years working in humanitarian response, with the UN and international NGOs, and her previous academic studies. Most of her humanitarian work was focused on violence against women and women’s empowerment. Ilaria, from Italy, has lived in the Middle East and East Africa and has travelled widely. Having been to school in the UK and studied in the UK during her undergraduate degree through the Erasmus programme and her first master’s in Development Management from the London School of Economics and Political Science, she knew the UK well. 

In 2018 she opted to do a second master’s at the University of Cambridge in the Sociology of Marginality and Exclusion where she focused on the humanitarian system and started questioning how the concepts of intersectionality and inclusion were being understood and used in the humanitarian sector. She felt they were being used to cut costs, whereas she felt good intersectional work required more resources and more specialised services rather than less.

“Instead of having experts on gender-based violence, disability, child protection or religious-based violence they would just have an inclusion expert who had to cover everything,” she says. “There is value in seeing connections between these areas, but that was not what they were trying to do. They wanted to spend less money and the results were that women had lower quality services and less voice.” That meant the most marginalised became more disenfranchised.

Cambridge research

For her PhD in Sociology, which she began in 2019, Ilaria wanted to further explore the need for an intersectional approach to support female survivors of violence, to reconsider feminist approaches to dealing with gender-based violence and recognise any blind spots to delivering appropriate services for a wide range of individuals.

Ilaria had wanted her PhD to involve participatory research, with her embedded in an organisation she had worked for before in a refugee camp in Uganda. However, due to Covid, she shifted to working in organisations in Italy and Serbia and a lot of her research was done online, although she did get some time for participatory observation in both places. The two organisations work with refugee and migrant women and women from their local communities who are survivors of human trafficking or other forms of gender- based violence, including intimate partner violence and forced marriage. 

Ilaria’s research on the ground found that, although there was anti-racist awareness, workers often found issues such as Islamophobia – where race and religion overlap – hard to discuss. “Support is all about relationships between staff and women. If the power dynamics are not fully understood, staff cannot really support survivors because too much is left unsaid,” says Ilaria [pictured right]. 

Most of the staff in her study considered themselves to be secular, but there was a sense that they had not reflected on their own cultural background so they were unable to address religion in either a positive or negative way. There were also assumptions underlying how workers approached issues such as women who didn’t want to take legal action against the perpetrators of violence against them or chose to prioritise motherhood over economic independence. Western ideas about being a strong, independent woman meant workers might not understand some women’s decisions and might judge them, says Ilaria.

“They have their ideas about what a liberated woman looks like. It’s a colonial mindset and they can struggle to think in different ways,” she states. “Intersectionality helps to guide their analysis of a situation and their actions and serves as a principle for a more collaborative way of working.”


By introducing the concept of intersectionality she believes new conversations can be initiated. “It’s a good tool to use to challenge very long established feminist principles and ways of doing this work and to point to the gaps that exist,” says Ilaria. “The idea is to make the work these organisations do better.”

For her it was important that she worked with the organisations to close the gaps between theory and practice. “Too often practitioners get tired of researchers saying this is wrong and then leaving,” she says. “Knowledge alone is not enough to enact change. We need people to come together and push collectively to change things. We need to be able to develop tools that lead to meaningful action that changes some of the rules of the game.”

She adds: “No-one goes into this line of work to be exclusionary. When you are working with survivors you are busy all day doing practical things such as helping with health and housing needs. You are exhausted and frustrated seeing all the barriers women face. You don’t have the time or the energy to focus on the big structural issues. I wanted to work out how we recognise that without letting it be an excuse.”

*Top picture: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA, c/o Wikimedia commons.

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