Dr Ava Kanyeredzi

Initially working in mental health, Dr Ava Kanyeredzi undertook a PhD at London Met examining issues faced by African and Caribbean heritage victim-survivors of violence/abuse. She is now a published author, researcher and lecturer, and the University welcomes her back from time to time as a guest lecturer. She is also active within the Black Church Domestic Abuse Forum – where Dr Kanyeredzi and her team provide domestic abuse resources for church leaders. 

What made you choose London Met and the course in the first place?

Initially I wanted to research the role of child abuse or domestic violence in mental distress and looked for institutions offering opportunities. When I found the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) at London Met were offering the PhD as part of the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarships, I thought, given my research interests, studying in a specialised research unit would be the perfect fit. I was excited by the opportunity to learn more about research at CWASU and possibly get involved in projects there. I was also thrilled to return to London Met, my alma mater, where I studied my undergraduate when it was the University of North London.

How did you find the lecturers and the facilities?

I took modules in Research Methods, Woman and Child Abuse and Life History Research. I found the lecturers knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects and delivered in an accessible and intellectually stimulating style with lots of lively student discussions. On the Woman and Child Abuse MA modules, I studied with practitioners from a range of backgrounds and with peers from my cohort. This made the experience even richer and informed my methodological approach.

I was in Ladbroke Grove to begin with and had always loved the architecture of the building, the familiarity of the corridors, library, student spaces where I spent so much time during my undergraduate degree. This made me feel ready for the challenge of undertaking my PhD.

When we moved over to the Holloway Road campus, I was crestfallen to begin with. However, the familiarity and homeliness that was and is still present at the Holloway Road campus soon distracted from this loss: the welcoming smells of the meals being prepared in the canteen, the bustle and flow of students through the entrance. I always pause at the entrance when I return to reflect on memories of conferences and events in the Henry Thomas Room and again the feeling of familiarity and sense of home that I experience there when I am there. I love the fusion of the old and new interiors in Holloway Road campus and that there is always somewhere to sit.

How would you describe the research culture at London Met?

The vibrant research culture is present everywhere you go in London Met, more noticeable from the posters in the corridors and the regular talks presented, many of which I attended during my PhD. I also got the opportunity to work on research projects at CWASU, to publish work whilst there.

Can you tell us more about your doctoral studies into this under-researched area?

Initially, my plan was to become a clinical psychologist, but during my Graduate Diploma studies I became interested in the psychosocial aspects of mental distress. More specifically, I was working as a healthcare assistant in a medium secure forensic psychiatric unit and wanted to understand people’s routes into these services. There was a lot of child abuse in patients’ background histories, but they became known to services through perpetrating violence/abuse. The racialised and socioeconomic disparities within patients’ lives are impossible to ignore when working in mental health services. Through literature searches I identified an absence in studies across the board about Black British women’s lived experiences and about sexual violence/mental distress in particular.

I conducted research with 15 women, seven practitioners and nine as victim-survivors. I also used visual methods photo-elicitation and photo production in life history interviews. Research carried out in the USA has showed that poverty, disadvantage, needing support with so much more than domestic violence and abuse places African American women outside the remit of refuges in some states. 

African-American women carry the legacies and burdens of what Patricia Hill Collins terms "controlling images" about Black women – that they are strong, invulnerable, can manage more by themselves, are too sexy to be raped, loud, aggressive and emasculating. I found that Black British women victim-survivors of child sexual abuse/domestic abuse do also carry these controlling images of being a "single mother", "less attractive", and they are very much aware that these images are used to judge and disregard them. They hold these images in constant consideration and in decisions to seek help and support. Their responses can include staying silent about experiences and adopting a "strong Black woman" persona to cope. Seeking help and support means having the trust to reach out.

This may be too much for women who have experienced systems, services and the people who represent them as hostile and discriminatory. This hostility within their everyday exchanges, in places of employment, study and public spaces, influence them to be hyper-vigilant, leaving them feeling judged and unheard. 

What has been the impact/outcomes since your research was published?

The research has raised the issues of how race, gender and experiences of violence/abuse intersect in Black British women’s lives and has been cited in policy documents on the experience and needs of minoritised British victim-survivors. I am regularly invited to present keynotes at academic, health, policy and practitioner events. I also annually return to London Met on the CWASU’s Woman and Child Abuse MA to deliver a guest lecture on my research.

What was the most valuable aspect of your time spent at London Met? 

I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD experience. It was the course I learned most from and was most challenged. It gave me the space, time and opportunity to read and reflect on violence/abuse research, feminist/Black feminist theories and their relevance to Black British victim-survivors of violence/abuse.

I enjoyed having peers within the same unit and our many debates and discussions. To be honest, during the PhD I thought little about what I would do when it ended. The most enjoyable aspect of my time at London Met was further developing my research skills, being sensitised to women’s words and all of the embodied ways in which violence/abuse and oppressions impact their lives. 

My PhD supervision by Prof Liz Kelly, Dr Maddy Coy and Prof Jenny Harding enabled me to shift my thinking and understanding of the topic and to reflect on the complexities of women’s lives in my writing. As a lecturer, I strive to create that careful, compassionate nurturing and containment that I received at London Met to enable students to produce their best work.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of community within London Met that made me feel that I belonged and welcomed. That has not changed since I first studied here.

I understand you’ve published a book (Race, Culture, and Gender, Black Female Experiences of Violence and Abuse)?

The book presents in-depth issues for African and Caribbean heritage victim-survivors of violence/abuse and is the direct result of my PhD research. It focusses on themes from interviews with African and Caribbean heritage women victim-survivors of violence/abuse.

The book documents the forms of abuse they experienced: child sexual abuse, multiple-perpetrator rape, emotional abuse and neglect, domestic violence. Some had experienced many forms across their life-course, most were abused in childhood. In addition, women offered how forms of abuse were racialised, derogatory comments about their hair texture/hairstyles, skin complexion, feeling racialised in public spaces, leaving a sense of not belonging – even though all were British citizens.

Those who perpetrated abuse were mostly men they knew who exploited access to the women as children. Women were also physically and emotionally abused and neglected by mothers. Developing on Liz Kelly’s sexual violence continuum, I conceptualised the many forms of abuse/violence women experience as a "continuum of oppression". Women were at first silenced by family members as children, leaving them the burden of reflecting on what had happened and the costs of speaking.

Two women who had experienced domestic violence lost custody of their children to their abusive partners. The book is useful for practitioners/researchers/students who have found it invaluable in understanding the sociocultural contexts UK for Black British women victim/survivors.

Can you explain a bit more about your work with the Black Church Domestic Abuse Forum (BCDAF)?

I am the research/evaluation lead for this collaboration of practitioners, theologians, academics, church leaders, lawyer, journalist, victim/survivors, convened in 2016 to provide domestic abuse resources for church leaders.

We have developed a training toolkit called Walk in the Way of Love, to enable church leaders to better respond to churchgoers who report domestic abuse. The BCDAF works primarily with Black Majority churches (BMCs). BMCs are churches of any denomination where congregants are mostly people of African or Caribbean heritage. BMCs have more than 100-year history, from their origins in Southwark in 1906 with over 500,000 in membership. BMCs are essential as spaces of safety, solace, education, employment and immigration support, fellowship, family, belonging and spiritual uplift. BMCs are under-researched especially on domestic abuse.

I am currently carrying out research funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to investigate awareness and understandings of domestic abuse within BMCs. This will include focus groups and interviews with BMC church leaders and churchgoers on their experiences of reporting or supporting domestic abuse. Find out more about this research

One of the findings from my PhD research was that faith/spirituality was important for all of the women I interviewed. I did not ask about their faith. Women shared photographs of church spaces that made them feel connected, were able to weep without question and I was interested in how these spaces could be more responsive to victim-survivors of child abuse or domestic violence. After I completed my PhD, I was connected to this collective. I was initially interested in church/faith spaces for victim-survivors but the BCDAF became so much more.

What have been the most satisfying and the most challenging elements of your work within churches?

I have learned so much about the process of working collaboratively on shared goals from diverse perspectives and producing outcomes. We hosted a very successful official launch event in January 2021 that was attended by 170 delegates with keynotes from church leaders and the now Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales. The event has further enabled us to connect with a wider network of individuals and projects doing similar work in faith communities. The BCDAF is also a member of the Faith and Violence Against Women coalition.

It was challenging at first to work at the pace of the collaboration that felt too slow. It took us a number of years and many deliberations to agree the resources and strategies for our target communities. Through this process I learned that the complexity of the issues that involve working with groups that are marginalised and feel under public scrutiny, yet still want to support victim-survivors, requires careful consideration and slow scholarship and collaboration.

Does it feel like you’re part of a sea change, with global movements like Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo supporting those who have been previously silenced or abused? 

It is difficult to not feel part of something greater than my research interests because of the current cultural, historical and political contexts. More public debate about the intersections of race/gender oppressions including lived experiences of violence/abuse benefits my research in terms of awareness and applications for funding.

However, there remains the challenge of always me still having to highlight that violence/abuse is no more prevalent in minoritised or Black communities; rather, people face more challenges in seeking support for a range of complex reasons. This informs me that more work is required to dismantle racist/racialised controlling images about minoritised communities.

There should be more attention paid in policy and practice to intersecting inequities that can be replicated in the very spaces where minoritised women seek support. More work should be done to diversify images and case studies of victimisation so that all victim-survivors feel more enabled to seek support. Within communities and families, more conversations about sexual consent, violence/abuse could reinforce the importance of these for men/women/children.  I am excited by the work we are doing in the BCDAF with church communities as this can enable people to seek support in spaces where they already feel safe to do so.

How has Covid affected your study / work?

Remote/online learning/teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic has enabled me to connect with students in ways that are a more flexible and convenient for them, some of this I wish to continue doing post pandemic. My work has felt more challenging and exhausting during the pandemic, especially when schools were closed. I have also been managing with a few physical health challenges and am one of those for whom the pandemic delayed medical interventions.

However, I have also felt most productive during this period, albeit with limited physical capacity. All of the political movements during the pandemic have amplified our societies’ inequities. This has meant for church communities, the issue of domestic abuse. Covid made our work at the BCDAF easier as people are now more aware of domestic abuse. It was easier and more convenient for us to deliver domestic abuse training online during the lockdowns.

Were you a member of any societies or activities at the University?

I was a member of the African-Caribbean society during my first degree. I enjoyed meeting people from different regions in the UK, Africa and the Caribbean via the society and to learn about their lives and experiences of race/racisms. I remember one of our members gave a presentation on the Biafran war, that until then I was completely unaware of.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of studying a PhD at London Met?

Please jump in, it will be one of the most memorable, challenging, humbling and transformational experiences of your life. You will learn heaps about your topic and yourself during the process. London Met for me was the most welcoming and supportive places to pursue a PhD.

Dr Ava Kanyeredzi smiling

"The vibrant research culture is present everywhere you go in London Met, more noticeable from the posters in the corridors and the regular talks presented, many of which I attended during my PhD. I also got the opportunity to work on research projects and to publish work whilst there."