Witnessing a rape at the age of sixteen and seeing first-hand the failings of the criminal justice system prompted Dr Wager to study and eventually work in the field of sexual violence, trauma, the processes and social responses to victimisation, and restorative justice. Dr Wager is currently a restorative justice facilitator, she also provides training for other facilitators who work in sexual violence cases, on top of being a Reader in Forensic Psychology at the University of Huddersfield. On this occasion, we discussed with Dr Wager the use of restorative justice for serious offences and specifically sexual violence.
Through fieldwork at police stations in the early 2000s, Dr Wager noticed that police agents often used informal, or ‘under the carpet’, restorative justice techniques as interventions in cases of gender-based violence. Although restorative justice is nowadays a concept commonly covered in criminology curriculums, even a few years ago restorative justice could only be delivered unofficially, according to Dr Wager, especially in cases of sexual violence. Whereas practitioners and scholars were eager to explore this seemingly powerful new tool she explained ‘nobody was going to allow us to do it because there was no evidence and there would be no evidence until we are allowed to do it’. It is then that she embarked on a journey to review existing cases of restorative justice in the English-speaking world.
Dr Wager’s initial research into restorative justice and mediation (for survivors of gender-based violence) included ten cases of restorative justice across four countries. In these case studies, all of the survivors had the option to participate, with Dr Wager’s research using trauma-informed practices to ensure the health of all participants.
Finding restorative justice an incredibly effective tool in survivors’ healing processes, Dr Wager concluded that restorative justice could be a holistically transformative process in particular circumstances: if it was initiated by the victim and if appropriate preparation was in place. That said, restorative justice puts power into the hands of the mediators, as well as the survivors. As such, restorative justice, if rushed, could have re-traumatising and re-victimising effects. Eventually, these findings helped shape restorative justice in practice.
Dr Wager noted that, ‘In restorative justice, the key thing is preparation.’ This ‘preparation’ translates to both mental and emotional preparation as well as tangible preparation. For the former two, Dr Wager argues that victims should be supported in exploring what they expect, want, and need from their meeting with the perpetrator. Discussing possible outcomes and reactions with a facilitator prepares victims for the often-unpredictable meetings with a perpetrator. Similar preparations take place with perpetrators who work with facilitators to explore their own expectations and motivations for meeting the victim.
Tangible preparations, such as determining the location and even the dress code, are crucial to create a safe and reassuring environment. Dr Wager described pre-organising sitting arrangements and managing the space in which the meeting will occur. She also mentioned the importance for some victims of choosing their outfit for the day, and having a plan laid out for the rest of their day, such as having someone waiting for them at home.
Dr Wager argues that the final meeting between victim and perpetrator is not the only transformative aspect of restorative justice, on the contrary the process itself can be tremendously beneficial; for this reason the emotional and mental preparation are crucial as they can be cathartic and allow for transformation to occur, even if a victim and perpetrator never eventually meet.
In the question-and-answer session, Dr Wager introduced her current projects, all of which utilise the insights she gained from her initial research. She is now running a global research centre for gender-based violence working in eight countries around the world. Of the centre’s main focuses, Dr Wager mentioned their research into Child Marriage in Uganda as having particular impact.
Finally, Dr Wager provided helpful insights into academic careers for all of the aspiring scholars in the program. Drawing from her own experiences post-PhD, Dr Wager disclosed that she initially faced employment for having children and being a mature student. She encourages students to explore multiple avenues in and around academia, such as non-profit work while avoiding lecturing from the start. Practicing what she preaches, Dr Wager researches the issues that inspire and move her, finding that the most authentic work comes from issues about which one truly cares.