Anti-oppressive theory and practice in social work seeks first to recognise oppression in communities, societies, and cultures, and thereafter to eliminate the pressure and undo the sway of such oppression. Anti-oppressive practice is by and large understood to be an omnibus term that includes, but is not limited to, diverse practice approaches like feminist, anti-racist, critical, radical, and structural frameworks. Anti-oppressive social work stands as such for a variety of theories and practices that adopt the perspective of social justice. It should thus more appropriately be considered to be a perspective or stance toward practice rather than a practice approach.
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Dominelli (1998) perceives anti-oppressive social work to be a type of social work practice that searches for social barriers and structural inequalities in activities that are conducted with service users or workers. Anti-oppressive practice tries to offer more suitable, responsive and perceptive services by reacting to the needs of individuals without considering their social status. Dominelli (1998) feels that it represents a person oriented philosophy and an egalitarian system of values that is concerned with lessening the venomous results of structural inequalities upon the lives of people. It is a methodology that focuses both on processes and on outcomes and is an approach of structuring relationships between persons that strives to empower users by lessening the adverse results of hierarchy during their interaction with each other and the activities they do together.
Social workers need to reinforce their abilities and attitudes for the conduct of anti-oppressive practice in many ways. Dalrymple and Burke (1995) state that social workers should obtain knowledge and understanding of their own selves, the majority social systems, different groups and cultures, and of fundamental human rights in order to effectively face issues on personal and structural levels and pursue anti-oppressive practices.
This short study takes up the need of social workers to become aware of and familiar with human rights and various cultural issues, especially those relevant to their service users, in order to engage in effective anti-oppressive practice. Special emphasis is given in the study to domestic violence against women of ethnic and immigrant communities in Ireland, many of whom face physical and mental abuse in their households, even as they otherwise suffer from the discriminatory attitudes and behaviour of people of mainstream and dominant communities.
Readying Social Workers for Anti-oppressive Practice
Oppression is essentially entrenched in society for the maintaining of its unequal status quo. Contemporary social workers are experiencing the unique development of an anti-oppression approach that is gradually replacing long-established social work models of individual rehabilitation and self fulfilment. The verbalisation and mounting sophistication of the anti- oppression approach has been and continues to be considerably influenced by ethnic, feminist, gay and lesbian, disability, and other social movements. The need to challenge inequality is an important driver of anti-oppressive practice, even as it is important to recognise that all challenges may not be successful and furthermore be distressful for the person or group who are challenging and those who are being challenged. Anti-oppressive practice plainly draws from a social model of difference. It builds on social constructionist models of differences, racial, ethnic, gendered, and others, which are created within the context of unequal social power relationships. It thus strongly argues for the development of practice that confronts, challenges, and alters unequal structures at all levels.
An important dimension of challenging inequality concerns the building of self-awareness and understanding of how the social location of the social worker influences the communication between the worker and the individuals or groups who are being challenged. The practice of reflecting and thinking is intrinsic to the anti-oppressive way. Dominelli (2002, p 9) argues that knowledge of oneself helps in equipping individuals for undertaking anti-oppressive tasks. Self-knowledge, for Dominelli, is central to the range of skills required of a reflective practitioner. Social workers, to be successful in anti-oppressive practice, should be able to critically reflect on their own selves in practice and on the ways in which their biographies influence their practice relationships. The ability to critically assess the experiences of oppression of service users requires them to examine the ways in which personal, cultural and structural issues and processes fashion the difficulties that service users bring up with service agencies. An understanding of human rights and various cultural issues, experts feel, can also help them significantly in knowing their own selves, realising the impact as well as the reasons for continuance of oppression in modern day society, and in addressing such issues.
Human Rights and Cultural Issues
Anti-oppressive practice, with its focus on reduction of all forms of social inequality, is closely associated with the bringing about of social justice. Much of modern day oppressive activity goes against the tenets of social justice and concerns the undermining, denying or taking away of fundamental human rights of individuals or groups of people. Human rights constitute the fundamentals on which modern day society has developed in the post Second World War era. Whilst human rights have progressively developed over centuries, widespread awareness about them grew only after the 1940s in the aftermath of the holocaust atrocities and the demise of colonialism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by the United Nations was a step taken by the global fraternity to ensure that human rights would not be compromised in future by the actions of people, groups or states.
Such rights include the right to life and property, the right of expression, the right to security from discrimination and the right to protection from physical and mental harm. Oppression nevertheless continues to occur in societies across the world, and often with the tacit of overt support of various governments that signed the UN declaration and thereafter legislated to protect human rights in their own countries.
Whilst oppression and empowerment in social work practice do relate to bringing about of social justice, they do not specify minimal and fundamental requirements for human existence. This compels social workers to view individuals who have to arrange for themselves when they are denied human rights by dominant powers. Social workers who are familiar with human rights can however readily and effectively apply human rights perspectives to spot violations. They can view situations of oppression and discrimination as circumstances in which various infrastructural and legal resources can be applied for effective elimination of oppression or negation of its impact.
The awareness of human rights and adoption of human rights perspectives can help social workers to frame circumstances concerning oppression into those of violations of rights, thereby making governments and citizens accountable for addressing and resolving such violations. Domestic violence, discrimination and inadequate education thus become instances of violation rather than of inadequate satisfaction of needs. Social workers with human rights perspectives can apply greater force to the challenging of unfair resource distribution, inequality and oppression.
Awareness about the culture of service users and the differences that exist between the cultures of social workers and different service users can also help social workers on understanding different ways of oppression, especially so in groups like immigrants or ethnic minorities, whose cultures are vastly different from members of the dominant groups. Culture represents the integrated and distinct patterns of behaviours, including thoughts, values, beliefs, customs and actions of racial, religious, ethnic, or social groups. It is considered to be the totality of ways that is passed through generations and includes ways in which individuals with disabilities or persons from different religious or ethnic backgrounds experience their environments.
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With the main mission of social workers being the enhancement of well-being and helping to satisfy fundamental human needs of persons who are poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, they can improve their practice effectiveness significantly by understanding and becoming sensitive to cultural diversity and uniqueness. The acquisition of such knowledge can help social workers in understanding the essence of social diversity and oppression with regard to race, ethnic background, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation and physical or mental disability. Such knowledge and understanding can help in the achievement of cultural competence and enable them to integrate and transform their knowledge of persons and groups of people into specific attitudes and practices. Whilst the development of cultural competency is important for social workers, the diverse backgrounds of service users, especially in urban locations, make this process difficult and challenging.
Oppression and Domestic Violence against Women
Domestic violence against women results directly from the inequalities between men and women. It denies women their very basic human rights, i.e. the right to health and undermines the development of communities and societies. General factors like marginalisation and poverty and specific aspects like race or ethnicity, result in some women becoming more vulnerable to domestic violence. Whilst men also face domestic violence, the lower social status of women, especially in certain communities and cultures exposes them to greater risk, even as the number of incidences of domestic violence against women appears to increase at an alarming pace.
“Domestic Violence refers to the use of physical or emotional force or threat of physical force, including sexual violence; in close adult relationshipsâ€¦.The term ‘domestic violence’ goes beyond actual physical violence. It can also involve emotional abuse; the destruction of property; isolation from friends, family and other sources of support; threats to others including children; stalking; and control over access to money, personal items, food, transportation and the telephone.”
Such violence causes extensive physical, emotional and mental damage to women. It prevents them from participating in society, limits their access to resources and their ability to take part in activities like work, travel and education. Apart from such adverse consequences, domestic violence against women damages the physical, emotional and mental development of children, hurts their performance in school and affects their life chances. Domestic violence also results in economic costs for the individual and for society that arise from missed work, health care costs and costs of social work assessment and intervention for women and other affected family members.
Domestic violence against women is a serious problem in Ireland. A 2002 report on Sexual Abuse and Violence revealed that one woman in four in Ireland had faced some sort of sexual abuse during her lifetime and one in five had suffered sexual assault as an adult. Ireland witnessed 109 murders of women between 1996 and 2005, 72 of which occurred in their homes. All the murders were perpetrated men and 50 % of these by partners or ex-partners. Ireland has been experiencing rapid inward migration since the 1990s, a phenomenon that has made one of the most homogenous societies in the EU culturally and ethnically diverse. Whilst domestic violence occurs across race, religion and class, migrant women experiencing violence at home face additional structural barriers on account of immigration status, lack of familiarity with language and racism, which significantly hamper their options for protection and support.
A 2008 study by Paula Fagan reveals that migrant women experiencing violence at home face four important barriers, namely (a) immigration legislation, (b) restrictions on usage of public funds, (c) racism from larger society and ostracism from own communities on re[ort of abuse, and (d) cultural differences with, and lack of understanding from, mainstream society, which increase their distress and vulnerability, reduce their options with regard to social security, exacerbate their fear of isolation and create barriers their seeking of assistance and protection.
Fagan’s report reveals that the discretionary character of the country’s immigration system presents unique challenges both for women and social workers in establishing rights, entitlements and protections for migrant women experiencing abuse. With no protections yet in place for women whose status are dependent on their husbands/partners or for those restricted from social welfare payments, options for keeping women safe are severely restricted. A key finding of this report is that, while there needs to be improvements in Ireland’s domestic violence legislative and policy framework for all women, there are specific failures in this system for migrant women linked to immigration legislation, policy and procedures.
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