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Towards Decolonising Knowledge in the Violence Prevention Field

For many decades, women’s movements around the world have challenged knowledge hierarchies that have (re)produced ideas of gender, masculinity, security and bodily integrity rooted in Eurocentric, colonial and imperialist beliefs. These beliefs have long privileged coloniser over colonised, white over non-white, masculine over feminine, and have been used to justify oppression and violence.

These hierarchies of knowledge and power continue to permeate the international development field today, including work to prevent men’s violence against women (VAW). Institutions and actors in the Global North dominate the conversation around what works to prevent VAW in the Global South and tend to limit the understanding of prevention to impact-focused studies with little attention to practitioner processes or experiences.

As we have argued elsewhere, working to elevate the knowledge and experiences of practitioners and communities engaged in VAW prevention – Practice-Based Knowledge – is one way to start to redress these imbalances and make the learning and practice of violence prevention more inclusive and ultimately more effective.

In this blog we propose that elevating Practice-Based Knowledge is a first step in a larger political project of ‘decolonising knowledge’ in the violence prevention field and in remaining accountable to women’s movements to ensure that women enjoy their human right to live a life free of violence.

Why decolonise knowledge on violence prevention?

Colonial and imperialist projects have historically been marked by the extraction of resources – both natural resources and human labour – as well as by knowledge-making. Together these processes bolstered a global system of domination by imperial, capitalist and patriarchal power centres over the rest of the world. Decolonising knowledge is part of a collective social, cultural and political process which recognises that “colonialism has not only displaced particular communities, but also their knowledge, and that to decolonise, in one way, is to recover and re-articulate these knowledges”. Decolonisation means dismantling the dominance of Northern/Western actors in knowledge production, embracing knowledge diversity and learning from the practices and experiences of local, indigenous and Southern communities in the ways that they choose.

Unfortunately, the current evidence-generating/knowledge-producing methodologies, deemed by the (Western) scientific community as ‘rigourous’, are too often extractive in nature and reproduce knowledge hierarchies from the colonial era. For example, VAW research is mostly rooted in formal learning methodologies forged in global health and international development spaces. While epidemiological frameworks have been critical to understand and address the epidemic of VAW in the Global South, these frameworks are nonetheless articulated through methodological extensions of colonial systems, perpetuating a narrative of knowledge as a resource to be extracted or harvested and continuing to displace Southern knowledges.

While it is important not to discount the work of Northern researchers, academics or advocates, it is the hierarchical knowledge-production system of which they are a part that must be collectively addressed. It is critical to avoid perpetuating the idea that indigenous knowledge “can only be identified as ‘legitimate’ and ‘real’ knowledge if it fits within a Western framework and has value for the dominant, non-indigenous culture”.

Those that participate in ‘professionalised’ development spaces (e.g. NGOs, bilateral donors, UN agencies), often educated and/or situated within Northern academic institutions, continue to dictate not only what counts as rigorous and valid knowledge (e.g. generated through quantitative studies and randomised controlled trials), but who gets to create and translate it, how, when, and what the knowledge priorities and key questions are for the field.

This dominance of certain understandings and ways of learning about VAW and its prevention over others cannot go unquestioned, nor can the dominance of certain groups of knowledge producers over other groups. This leads to incomplete representations of women’s experiences of VAW, discounting the learning and experiences of women’s movements and limiting our collective ability to address violence. Decolonising knowledge by elevating, documenting and sharing practitioner knowledge provides an imperative to engage with communities, histories and knowledges in particular contexts – whether in funding, designing, implementing, or documenting violence prevention – without subjugating or displacing certain ways of knowing while elevating others.

Decolonising knowledge: An intersectional approach

Feminist scholarship has shown that while the colonial disposition of knowledge (concepts, ideas, institutions who produce knowledge) regarding ‘gender’ and ‘race’ privileged the European male coloniser, it was mostly deployed to separate the ‘West’ and the ‘rest’. Eurocentric conceptions of gender lacked the contextual knowledge and location of gender at the intersection of race in certain communities, therefore silencing the knowledge of how different communities live, resist and learn.

Decoloniality as a framework allows an engagement with intersectionality to review how categories such as gender, class, race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, geographic location, etc. intersect and play out in specific communities, and enhances understanding of the nature of violence and what works to prevent it. Decolonial feminist Maria Lugones shows that these intersections highlight the ‘presence’ of certain groups over the ‘absence’ of certain others. This can be a powerful lens to keep researchers, practitioners and policymakers collectively accountable to considerations of gender, class, and racial blindness in knowledge production. When properly utilised, this can inspire everyone to be intentional about what, how, why, when, and with and for whom they create knowledge, providing the impetus to elevate the voices of local practitioners and communities closest to prevention work.

The way forward: A few propositions

Researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on VAW prevention should:

  • Collectively take stock of knowledge produced in the VAW field, recognise this as a partial representation and work together to make our understanding more complete by incorporating diverse knowledges and perspectives.
  • Highlight the historical and contextual roots of the knowledge produced through research, practice and policymaking.
  • Critically evaluate biases in the current funding landscape and positively favour women’s movements and groups enabling them to document and share knowledge that can improve the VAW field and better link it with global political movements.
  • Ensure their organisations and institutions revisit hiring practices and promote diversity in hiring, while making sure they collectively partake in documenting, sharing and learning from each other, valuing everyone equally as a key producer of knowledge.
  • Support translations and alternative publications to move beyond the dominance of peer-reviewed journals and reports by large multilateral organisations.
  • Train the next generation of practitioners, programme implementers, researchers and policymakers by using a diversity of learning materials and trainers from the Global South and North.

Actors working in the VAW prevention field must continue to be reflexive, iterative and open as they partake in this collective social, cultural and political project of decolonising knowledge, reminding themselves and their colleagues to elevate diverse perspectives and to do no harm in the process. In all of these efforts, it is important to stay committed to feminist approaches to engaging, questioning and challenging dominant frameworks, concepts and processes in the VAW field and strengthen the collective struggle to prevent violence.

Further reading

Bhambra, G.K. (2014) Connected Sociologies. Bloomsbury Academic.

Brah, Avtar and Phoenix, Ann (2004) “Ain’t I A Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(3), 75-86.

Connell, R. (2014) “The Sociology of Gender in Southern perspective.” Current Sociology.

hooks, bell (1999) Ain’t I a woman: Black women and Feminism. London: South End Press or Pluto Classics.

Lugones, M. (2016) “The Coloniality of Gender” in The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Development pp 13-33.

McClintock, A. (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.

Mohanty, C.T. (1988) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses“ Feminist Review 30(1): 61-68.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books.

About the Authors

Devin Faris is an independent researcher and writer and a Prevention Mentor with The Prevention Collaborative. He has supported the launch of the Collaborative’s Learning Partnership with Tharthi Myay Foundation in Myanmar, and co-authored ‘Elevating Practice-Based Knowledge to Improve Prevention Programming’ with Prashanthi Jayasekara. He is currently based in Thailand.

Prashanthi Jayasekara is a Knowledge Associate at The Prevention Collaborative. She is a co-author of ‘Elevating Practice-Based Knowledge to Improve Prevention Programming‘. She is currently based in Sri Lanka.

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Date published
  • 2020
  • Devin Faris
  • Prashanthi Jayasekara
Published by The Prevention Collaborative