Tamsin Bradley smiling with a flowery shirt on. Life Solved logo in corner

Professor Tamsin Bradley explores women, work and violence in South Asia

  • 16 February 2021
  • 26 min listen

In this episode of Life Solved, Professor Tamsin Bradley explains how innovative research into violence against women is informing international development organisations on how to respond to crises.

Professor Bradley has been working with international community projects in areas like Nepal, South Sudan, Myanmar and Bangladesh to explore women's experiences of violence after economic or environmental hardship.

She realised that peer networks and support groups outside the home offered a safe space for women to disclose information, share and access support.

What's more, her research has added nuance to common perceptions about violence against women and intimate partner violence, revealing tensions in cultures that organisations can work to relieve.

Tamsin explains learnings that could help challenge violence and control and nurture sustainable development for girls and women who have experienced violence.

Research at the intersections of violence

Professor Bradley says violence against women and girls can come in many forms. From coercive control to FGM, intimate partner violence, domestic and economic abuse, she says much of her work happens at the intersection of these problems.

It is very common, unfortunately, that women who, for example, might suffer from intimate partner violence also have undergone a harmful cultural practice such as FGM. They might also simultaneously endure domestic abuse in different forms. So that might be physical abuse, but it might also be economic and other kinds of psychological forms of harassment and trauma.

Professor Tamsin Bradley, Professor in International Development Studies

She's led research into different cultures and contexts around the world in the hope of pinpointing some common causes, such as environmental displacement after flooding or earthquakes.

Community Narration

A pioneering approach saw Tamsin asking 'narrators' to report back on stories and experiences in their communities. This gave an unrivalled insight into the reality of environments where outside intrusion was either not possible or not welcomed.

So we have our narrators, men and women, who can give us ongoing reflections on how life is and on the changes that are happening around them. How those changes are then impacting the quality of their life and their sense of well-being and increasingly on their mental health.

Professor Tamsin Bradley, Professor in International Development Studies

Professor Bradley’s work saw her study communities in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and more recently in South Sudan, where community art collectives allowed her to record qualitative data about women’s experiences in safe spaces, such as an embroidery group.

Crucially, the naturally-occurring peer-network spaces created by women outside the home also present an opportunity to share vital information and connect with external support for violence or abuse.

The organisation Stop Domestic Abuse in Havant use this model. They'll bring women together from different African contacts and offer them training and support around harmful cultural practises. So that's a peer network, a core group that is then connected to an organisation that is then able to access other forms of support.

Professor Tamsin Bradley, Professor in International Development Studies

Nuanced Circumstances

Another benefit of Tamsin's narrator-led approach is that men and women were invited to comment upon the nuances of their own communities, giving a deeper insight into the individual cultural tensions and pressures that can lead to increases in exploitation and violence. Her conclusion was that social and economic pressures were likely triggers for the objectification and abuse of women.

But taking a different or a range of different approaches to understanding the experiences of men and women of their day to day lives gives us a much more holistic and more positive view, actually, of masculinity that helps us understand that there's nothing about the construction of masculinity that predisposes men to be violent. Actually, it is the stress of the context, but it's also the system of marriage, the way in which communities bargain economically with each other.

Professor Tamsin Bradley, Professor in International Development Studies

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth where research is taking place to change our world for the better. In this series, we're meeting some very clever people and understanding how they are making a difference in your life and mine.

Anna Rose: Today, we find out just how fundamental safe spaces for women become when economies or environments are under stress.

Tamsin Bradley: Some of the women literally said, you know, we close our eyes and we dream of something beautiful that we can embroider as a way of not having to constantly focus on the reminders of war that's everywhere.

Anna Rose: Professor Tamsin Bradley tells us about her innovative approach to adding depth and context to data she's gathering about violence against women.

Tamsin Bradley: There's nothing about the construction of masculinity that predisposes men to be violent actually. It is the stress of the context, but it's also the system of marriage, the way in which communities bargain economically with each other, that essentially women get caught up in these processes and they become objects to be traded almost.

Anna Rose: Let's find out how smart and detailed data is being put into practice by government and aid organisations to reduce violence against women the world over.

Anna Rose: Tamsin Bradley is Professor of International Development Studies here at Portsmouth. She's a social anthropologist who has been researching and applying research towards ending violence against women. She came to Portsmouth in 2011 and works locally in the city and across Hampshire, in addition to her focus on developing countries in South Asia and parts of Africa.

Anna Rose: She explained how violence against women can take many forms.

Tamsin Bradley: I mean, it's not just the kind of literal physical dimension of violence. I mean, now we operate in terms of defining what we mean by violence against women and girls with a spectrum that includes things like coercive control now. So psychological and emotional abuse, economic abuse also. And what my research often explores is the intersections between different forms of violence. So it's, it is very common, unfortunately, that women who, for example, might suffer from intimate partner violence also has undergone a harmful cultural practice such as FGM, or may also simultaneously injure domestic abuse in different forms. So that might be physical abuse, but it might also be economic and other kind of psychological forms of harassment and trauma. So usually that's what we're looking at. So understanding how these forms of violence link and weave together is a really important part of the work that I do. And then coupled with that understanding, the kind of roots in to change. So how do we trigger positive pathways to bring about an end to all forms of violence against women and girls?

Anna Rose: Providing solutions that can be applied in real life situations is at the heart of research work at Portsmouth. But to do that, you need to first have strong data that deepens our understanding of the issues, especially in lots of different circumstances and locations. Tamsin explained how she might begin to measure these different forms of violence to trace their origins or assess the impact upon lives.

Tamsin Bradley: So we will field surveys to generate quantitative data sets, and that really is to understand prevalence. So we need to understand in a kind of numeric sense the scale of the problem. So we'll field surveys that capture experiences of different forms of violence, as well as helping us understand what might be the reasons behind those violence. So thinking in terms of particular context that might trigger an increase, for example, in intimate partner violence. So work I've done in recently in Nepal and Bangladesh and Myanmar, we were looking at the links between increases in violence and environmental displacement. So working in communities that had suffered from displacement because of flooding or in Nepal or so sites that were affected by earthquakes. So collecting survey data to understand the scale of the increase of violence as a result of events.

Anna Rose: The second wing of this research combines that quantitative data with more open-ended approaches that allow Tamsin to draw out the context of different sets of data.

Tamsin Bradley: Specifically, for example, why it is that low-caste young women in Nepal are more susceptible to intimate partner violence than wealthier middle-class women. So understanding those particular dimensions is really important, and we do that through open-ended or in-depth interviews. But we've also trialled a number of other approaches that give us much more of a longitudinal dimension. So we have been working with researchers on the ground that we call 'community narrators'. They are individuals who live within the communities, but they are able to offer on an ongoing basis kind of community updates on how life is for different groups of women. And it's enabled us and supported our quantitative and interview data because it allows us to track over time how things have changed and understand or even predict moments when there might need to be an additional support because we're likely going to see an increase in violence.

Anna Rose: These narrators are key in giving a wider picture of life within projects. It's a pioneering approach that allows external researchers to understand how events happen over time in often remote locations.

Tamsin Bradley: A narrator is an individual who is asked to tell as a kind of ongoing story, what is happening around them. So our narrators, in particular, are asked to detail the lives of women and young people specifically. And they will do that literally just by documenting, recording in a verbal sense, events that have happened. Particular instances, for example, of violence that's known to have erupted within a community. They will offer a sort of retelling of any positive engagement with local government officials or organisations on the ground that were particularly helpful in responding to a problem. So narrator's really, I guess another way of describing them would be their storytellers, but obviously, the stories are based on real life events.

Tamsin Bradley: We have a number of narrators who come from within sectors that are classed as being at risk to slave-like conditions. So, for example, narrators within the ready-made garment sector, narrators within commercial sexual exploitation and within overseas labour recruitment groups. So we have our narrators, men and women, who are able to give us ongoing reflections on how life is and on the changes that are happening around them and how those changes are then impacting on the quality of their life and their sense of well-being and increasingly on their mental health.

Tamsin Bradley: We first used it in Nepal and Myanmar to track the impact of displacement on communities with a specific focus on how displacement may or may not trigger increases in different forms of violence against women. So we used it in order to be able to understand, well, how does-- how does that play out over time? Obviously, you have the initial crisis that hits when people are displaced because of flooding, for example. But how over a month, two months, three months do communities respond? What mechanisms do they have available to build up their resilience? What kind of coping strategies do they-- do they draw on, not just to survive, but in the case of a woman in order to mitigate increases in domestic violence, for example, or even mitigate increases in violence in public spaces. Because obviously, when you displaced, you have to leave your home, you're often not able to maintain the same level of safety in terms of privacy and safe space-- safe spaces. So in communal accommodation, for example, that often is created post-disaster.

Anna Rose: Tamsin used the narrator approach to explore displacement in Bangladesh. She was keen to get an insight into people's experience here during and after a period of flooding when sending in a researcher would have been nearly impossible.

Anna Rose: The other benefit to having these local communicators is that their connections to the local community can allow for more trust when sharing sensitive topics.

Tamsin Bradley: We've used community narrators also in a very hard to reach place in Bangladesh called the Char. And the Char's suffer from some of the most extreme yearly flooding. These are communities that basically live on land that emerge out of the river, that are basically big sand banks. And so as the flooding happens, many of the Chars will just disappear. So people literally have to take to their boats and then try and find a new, more solid landmass to relocate to. So really extreme forms of displacement and really hard to reach communities. I mean, some of these communities you can only get to by boat and travelling for days. But we wanted to be able to make their stories and experiences during flooding, and the months after, much more visible and much more visible to donors and to international development organisations, because it's very easy to forget people if they're not visible.

Anna Rose: Tamsin saw an opportunity to work within existing support networks via naturally occurring safe spaces for women. The idea is that they could help in fostering connections to local government support and justice organisations. This was put into practice in Myanmar by the UNFPA or United Nations Population Fund.

Tamsin Bradley: Women are able to create these safe spaces for themselves because men don't really want to have anything to do with the space that they can see is full of women. So we found, interestingly, that in the different communities that we've worked in, women find it quite easy to create these spaces. And yes, they will in terms of poor labour resourcing, so help each other with childcare, they might work together and create a micro saving scheme or loan schemes, work together to set up businesses. So this-- really quite powerful outcomes from these peer networks that exist naturally.

Tamsin Bradley: So in Myanmar, to give a kind of concrete example, we have been working with the UNFPA who sometimes are a donor but sometimes are receiving donor money. So the UNFPA took our research findings around the importance of peer networks into one of their programmes working with their local partner in Kachin State. And that programme was around microcredit for women. They created as part of the support for women involved in that programme, some women only groups in order to encourage women to share their experiences of the microcredit scheme in terms of how they use the money, but also as a way of being able to capture any instances where women earning an income was having an adverse effect on their lives in terms of introducing tension into the household. So husbands that might be jealous that their wives are the only ones are able to earn an income that can often be a trigger point for intimate partner violence. So the UNFPA took that finding and then created these women's forums as part of their programming and they're still active. And the women who are part of those forums report that they find them incredibly useful in terms of being able to offer additional support.

Anna Rose: This approach has also been applied here in the UK.

Tamsin Bradley: The organisation Stop Domestic Abuse in Havant use this model. They'll bring women together from different African contexts and offer them training and support around harmful cultural practises. So that's a kind of peer network or group that's then connected to an organisation that's then able to access other forms of support. So they're kind of a linkage between different stakeholders. But quite often in forming these groups, because that's a group obviously that's a community peer group but it's very strategic in terms of it's focussed around awareness raising and supporting women to build resilience against FGM, but often these groups come out of other peer network groups. So women organically meeting Sudanese women in, you know, Southsea might meet anyway through the Sudanese society. They might come together anyway to, I don't know, share again, you know, child care or to cook together or just to-- just for socialising.

Anna Rose: Beginning with community projects and gatherings that already foster a safe space for conversation and sharing, Tamsin's team partnered with a local organisation that's doing this through art in South Sudan.

Tamsin Bradley: It's called the Likiriri Collective in South Sudan, partnering with them on a number of projects now. It's also unique to the South Sudanese context in which art is incredibly rich and incredibly diverse. So it's a culture and a context in which different forms of art really, really highly valued. So almost everybody has some connection to some art form. It might be beading, it might be embroidery, it might be carpentry, it might be painting, street theatre, singing and dance-- song and dance are really important art forms in South Sudan. And in a context that's gone through so many decades of war, art becomes a really critical way of communicating and reconciling with past experience, but also a really important way of maintaining connections. So communities in South Sudan are frequently displaced either by war or by drought. So again, art becomes a way of connecting people to their identity, their cultural and ethnic identity, but also to particular environments. So in that sense, it's been a really exciting country to be developing this very innovative arts approach in. It is an approach that we plan to transfer. But likely we will have to adapt the approach again to the specifics of the culture moving into another country that doesn't have such diversity in terms of art, whose historic experience and memory will be slightly different. The way in which we use art will need to be adapted so that it's appropriate and sensitive to that place.

Tamsin Bradley: We've conducted story circles with groups of different types of artists. So one particular story circle we conducted with women who embroider bed sheets, the embroidery of bedsheets is a really well known and important tradition amongst women in South Sudan. And these bed sheets are incredibly beautiful, but they also fetch a high price. So they are often given as gifts at marriage. So women not only are telling really elaborate and intricate stories of their lives through their art, but the sheets themselves then have really been a survival mechanism in terms of ensuring that women are literally able to feed their families. So the stories that came out of that particular circle were really powerful in terms of understanding exactly what this art meant to the women involved. But also you could see that the art itself was a way of escaping the ugliness of war. And some of the women literally said, you know, we close our eyes and we dream of something beautiful that we can embroider as a way of not having to constantly focus on the reminders of war that's everywhere. So we don't-- we don't embroider that tree that's burnt down because that's not beautiful. Instead, we imagine a beautiful flower and colours are able to to bring us some peace.

Tamsin Bradley: Just sitting together and embroidering is a really important form of social and cultural capital because women are talking and sharing problems. But also are using that space to problem solve and to help each other find the strength and resilience to keep-- to keep going in a context that's really, really challenging.

Anna Rose: Whereas the numbers have shown high levels of intimate partner violence in South Sudan, the story circles Tamsin conducted with men have added nuance and depth to the narratives the figures otherwise suggest.

Tamsin Bradley: So, for example, a story circle with men who are carpenters again, a lot of what they shared was about loss of tradition and fear that the younger generation weren't interested in making things out of wood anymore and sharing, you know, how their self-esteem very much is linked to their skill and what they're able to produce. But then asked, you know, where do you get your motivation from? What inspires you? You know, so many of the men said, well, it's my wife, you know, it's my beautiful wife. She inspires me to create this art. And it would be just far too easy for the problem to be oversimplified in terms of, well, there's clearly something in the construction of masculinity in South Sudan, which means that men are more aggressive, for example. So that kind of stereotyping is really, really unhelpful in terms of trying to reverse these sorts of patterns. But taking a different or a range of different approaches to understanding the experiences of men and women of their day to day lives gives us a much more holistic and more positive view, actually, of masculinity that helps us understand that there's nothing about the construction of masculinity that predisposes men to be violent. Actually, it is the stress of the context, but it's also the system of marriage, the way in which communities bargain economically with each other, that essentially women get caught up in these processes and they become objects to be traded.

Anna Rose: Tamsin explained more about how she's been able to relate certain types of violence to different triggers. She also told us why this is so important in helping emergency relief responses act in a targeted way to prevent it.

Tamsin Bradley: So when displacement suddenly happens, it's really important to have the evidence to be able to direct international organisations to focus on-- ensure that those resourcing to respond to what we know will be an increase in violence.

Tamsin Bradley: We're going to increasingly see humanitarian crises that are triggered by environmental catastrophes. So, you know, yearly we see people displaced because of flooding. We've seen the earthquake in Nepal. We see, you know, drought in places, well, many parts of the world, but Ethiopia specifically where I'm working at the-- at the moment. So all of these instances create a humanitarian crisis because people who live in poverty and extreme poverty just simply are not resilient. They don't have the mechanisms to withstand these sorts of environmental shocks. They don't have the savings. They don't have alternative means of making an income. So communities that are already vulnerable because of extreme poverty will very quickly reach a crisis point when these environmental disasters occur. I've talked about South Sudan, we can see environmental disaster and crises there also in terms of the impact that climate change is having on drought in particular. But the crisis there is fundamentally about war and it's about a country that has been ravaged by different kinds of wars and moment, an internal battle. Often we'll see, you know, humanitarian crisis triggered, as I said, not just by one event, but also multiple events. And I think that's particularly challenging, but also in situations where there's high levels of government corruption in Myanmar when you've had a military dictatorship for decades, still, arguably the military are in control in Myanmar. So all of that kind of political oppression, economic oppression, social oppression, all of that on top of a sudden climatic disaster really, as I said, knocks the ability of people to cope, particularly when they're really poor. You know, understandably, within that context, it's really, you know, humanitarian organisations have to work out with the resources that they have how best to deploy those resources. So the work that I'm doing is about obviously raising the visibility of violence within those contexts, but also looking at what kind of measures work best effectively and in a cost-efficient way to provide women with safe spaces, but also recourse to justice if that is needed.

Anna Rose: And Tamsin's findings are used in advising international development organisations on their approach to crises and changing situations.

Tamsin Bradley: The ultimate goal is that my research will have impact in terms of reducing levels of violence against women and girls. I mean, that's the kind of ambitious meta goal, if you like. But on a sort of more day-to-day, it is about impact that's really critically important. So it's about bringing greater understanding as to why violence happens, how it happens, which forms of violence and the intersections between different forms of violence. Just understanding all of that better. And then to draw out of that understanding some quite key recommendations in terms of policies, in terms of practice. So things that work best, bringing levels of violence down.

Anna Rose: And the next step in this plan is to apply all the research and data that's gathered to useful and practical steps on the ground.

Tamsin Bradley: Taking forward the Art Heritage Resilience Dignity Project, we've secured funding with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work again in South Sudan with the Likiriri Collective, the arts-based organisation, but also partnering with UCL and Plan international. Plan International is a very big NGO. So we will be working with them in South Sudan to look at different approaches to bringing about sustainable development for girls and young women who have experienced violence. So we will be using again the kind of story circle approach as well as quantitative and qualitative data. We will be reviewing different projects and interventions that have either finished or are ongoing, are going to gather evidence over what works best to create that sustainable and violence-free existence for young girls. But then we will be using the data that we collected a research strand to actually inform and design new interventions.

Anna Rose: Best of luck to Tamsin with her next project. You can follow her progress and find out about a host of other research online at port.ac.uk/research. If you want to share your thoughts on this programme, you can follow us on social media and share using the hashtag Life Solved.

Anna Rose: In our next episode, we hear how the diversity of a nation's economics can mean boom or bust for its growth.

Andy Thorpe: So oil, for example, is very important to places like Kuwait. The only problem with it, of course, is that everybody wants to work in oil. So you tend to find that oil tends to crowd out any other type of economic activity and they refer sometimes to there being a resource curse.

Anna Rose: Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app to get every episode of Life Solved automatically. And please do tell us what you think with a review or rating if you get a moment.

Anna Rose: From the team in Portsmouth, thanks for listening. See you next time.

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