The Shark Cage Framework was developed by Melbourne psychologist, Ursula Benstead. The Five Step framework is a way of preventing, understanding and healing from violence against girls and women. It is based on the concept of Universal Human Rights and draws on a powerful metaphor and multiple psychological modalities for working in trauma informed ways to help women interrupt patterns of abuse in their lives and in ways that empower girls and women and challenge victim blaming.
She developed the framework in response to so many of the women she saw for counselling, blaming themselves for experiences of abuse in their lives. Women and the workers who supported, them found the Shark Cage metaphor and the strategies that accompanied it incredibly helpful in reducing feelings of self-blame and increasing feelings of self-worth, hope and empowerment. This feedback encouraged Ursula to share her ideas more widely. In 2011 she published The Shark Cage: The Use of metaphor with women who have experienced abuse in a journal of psychotherapy (Benstead, 2011). The overwhelming response from readers who wanted to know more led to the development of training for helping professionals, The Shark Cage: A practical framework for prevention and addressing re-victimisation in girls and women.
Over five thousand workers have completed this training nationally and internationally. The Shark Cage Framework was so powerful in working with individuals in support and counselling settings, that Ursula started working on combining the power of the framework with the power of group work. Ursula wrote and piloted the extremely successful, evidence based group program. The Shark Cage Group Program Manual: A human Rights approach to healing for women who have experienced sexual assault or family violence was published in 2017.
Today, there are Shark Cage support groups, facilitated by workers trained by Ursula, running in all over Australia and one in the United Kingdom. One of the most common reflections from women who participated in the group was ‘If only I had this knowledge when I was younger. This program should be given to girls in school’.
Ursula and other professionals had also noticed the powerful prevention potential of the Shark Cage Framework. This led to a collaboration between Ursula and her sister, Angelle Hughes, an educator in regional NSW. The Shark Cage Program for Young women: A Human Rights approach to gender violence and healthy relationships was developed and piloted in two high schools in 2018. The pilot was a huge success and met the anticipated outcomes. There is now an accreditation process for professionals who work with young women who want to bring this program to their school or service.
Facilitating the Shark Cage Program for Young Women is new training available to workers who have completed the foundational training. The training comes with a full Program Manual and USB of electronic resources to deliver the seven week program. The digital resources include a colourful animation that helps young women explore the concepts of human rights, feminism, intersectionality and the Shark Cage metaphor with their peer in ways that create opportunities for new understandings of equity, respect and safety for everyone in the world. Ursula has also written a self-help book based on the Shark Cage framework for women that will be published in 2021