Whakamanahia Wahine Programme for low-risk women offenders

Dr Annie Weir

Director, Impact Research NZ, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Critical Studies in Education,
Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.

Author biography:

Dr Annie Weir is the Director of Impact Research NZ and is an Honorary Research Fellow with the School of Critical Studies in Education, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland . Dr Weir is passionate about producing credible research and evaluation that informs organisational policies and practices in the education, health and social service sectors. She is particularly interested in how agencies and organisations interpret and implement government policies. Her research and evaluation involves investigations into marginalised and vulnerable groups in New Zealand.


The Department of Corrections Innovation Fund supports their aim to reduce recidivism. The Whakamanahia Wahine community-based programme received funding for two pilots in 2013 and 2014 which were attended by between ten and 14 low-risk female offenders from the Bay of Plenty. The programme goals were to improve individual well-being and personal development and to reduce recidivism. The programme was based on a holistic approach to building sustainable skills for personal wellbeing including self-efficacy around educational attainment, building personal wellbeing skills, fostering positive relationships and creating personal pathway plans. A three-month follow-up evaluation from the first pilot showed zero recidivism amongst the contacted participants. This evaluation was based on self-report only from the five participants that were able to be contacted. The programme for the second pilot for ten participants kept mostly the format of the first pilot, however based on participant and stakeholder feedback, the programme length was extended (from six weeks to eight weeks), a co-facilitator and mentors were included as well as selecting educational goals based on the participants’ individual needs. These programme elements are supported by the international literature on good practice. The evaluations and results of these two pilots support the possibility for future mainstreaming of funds to offer this programme more widely.


The Whakamanahia Wahine programme was designed by Presbyterian Support Northern (PSN) which is large social service provider. Funded by the Department of Corrections Innovation Fund, the programme aimed to reduce recidivism of low-risk female offenders in the Bay of Plenty. The community based programme was aimed at low-risk female offenders as it was thought that they were most likely to benefit from it and that they would be able to make sustainable positive changes in their lives, thus reducing their chances of re-offending. Based on a holistic approach to developing participants’ wellbeing, the programme focused on psychological, family, spiritual and physical dimensions of wellbeing. Impact Research NZ was commissioned by PSN to undertake an evaluation of the implementation of the programme.

This paper briefly highlights some international good practice examples for reducing recidivism which can inform practice in the New Zealand context. We discuss the development, implementation, outcomes and key success factors of the first pilot programme (June – July 2013). Evaluation of the first pilot demonstrated it achieved the intended outcomes and led to funding by the Department of Corrections for a second pilot. The second pilot (May – June 2014) confirmed the value of the programme for increasing participants’ wellbeing and reducing recidivism among low-risk female offenders.

The international context on rehabilitation for female offenders

We position the Whakamanahia Wahine Programme in the context of international good practice around community rehabilitation for reducing recidivism among female offenders. This section briefly outlines aspects of good practice and innovation in relation to community rehabilitation from the United Kingdom (UK), Europe, and the United States of America (USA), with a focus on women’s rehabilitation where this is available.

Reviews on good practice

Reports from the UK, Europe and the USA on female rehabilitation programmes indicate that good practice includes:

  • women-only
  • incorporate non-offenders to normalise the
  • strengths-based, developing a sense of purpose and fostering hope
  • tailored to individual needs in ways that consider issues of identity
  • based on effective learning principles
  • empowering women to problem solve and build positive relationships
  • holistic and consider practical concerns and link with mainstream agencies
  • motivational for participants encouraging them to seek further education or employment (Devilly et al, 2005; Gelsthorpe, et al., 2007; Frazer et al., 2014; Worrall & Gelsthorpe, 2009).

Practical considerations such as transportation and childcare assistance can support programme attendance (Gelsthorpe, et al., 2007). Good practice programmes also provide access to post-programme support and foster ongoing supportive relationships including mentors (Fletcher and Batty, 2012; UK Ministry of Justice, 2013).

The international context and evaluations of these services indicate a number of good practice elements such as building positive relationships with peers, mentors and probation staff, empowering women to problem solve and to seek education and employment opportunities, and providing follow-up support. The Department of Corrections Innovation Fund allowed us to trial these principles in a NZ context and adapt as required.

Department of Corrections Innovation Fund

An Innovation Fund was set up to support the Department of Corrections strategy to “create lasting change” by breaking the cycle of re-offending (Department of Corrections, 2011). Through the Innovation Fund the Department of Corrections provides community groups with an opportunity to deliver offender intervention programmes.

The Whakamanahia Wahine rehabilitation programme for women on community sentences is one of these programmes, with goals of improving interpersonal skills and personal relationships, promoting positive change and creating pathway plans. Participants were low-risk female offenders currently being managed by Bay of Plenty Community Corrections staff.

The Whakamanahia Wahine Programme

Programme design

Presbyterian Support Northern (PSN) designed the personal development programme for women on community sentences. The course was based around the concept of Te Whare Tapa Wha model of wellbeing (Durie, 1998) to structure mechanisms for behavioural change which include elements of psychological, spiritual, physical and family health. At the outset the participants were invited to name their own programme. The name chosen, Whakamanahia Wahine, represents hope for a positive future, and taking ownership of the name was a significant step in a programme designed to rebuild and restore the women’s lives, and for them to become strong for themselves and their children.

Programme delivery (Pilot One)

The personal development programme was held four days a week (9:30am to 2pm) over a six week period from 4 June to 11 July 2013. The programme followed a strengths-based approach. It offered opportunities for educational attainment and skill building, links to education, service and community organisations and fostering new friendships that continued after the completion of the programme.

The programme was led by a dynamic facilitator who is an accomplished author, adult educator and family violence advocate and who herself had previously offended and could relate to the participants.

Transport to and from the programme was provided and the programme was designed to fit around the school day. Church volunteers provided the participants with food and refreshments during the day. The church volunteers and participants bonded positively.

Participants of Pilot One

Eleven of the original 14 participants (aged 19 – 43 years) of which 50 percent were Mäori and 50 percent were Päkehä completed the programme. Most participants had no formal qualifications with a few having achieved Level 3 NZQA unit standards. All the participants had experienced hardship and trauma which had culminated in enforced government agency intervention (including social justice and social services) as well as government agency support (including financial support, social housing, and health care). Many women had family to care for; some had children removed from their care due to concerns of domestic abuse and child welfare. Other concerns included gang affiliations and dependency on alcohol or drugs. Their offences included theft, fraud, wilful damage, assault and supply of a controlled substance.

Evaluation of Pilot One

Evaluation method

A qualitative evaluation of the first pilot of the programme was conducted by Impact Research NZ between June and August 2013. The evaluation collected participants’ perspectives using surveys (beginning and end of programme) and interviews (end of programme and three months after programme completion). Key stakeholders such as probation officers, programme staff and volunteers were surveyed and/or interviewed upon programme completion. Document review associated with programme design, implementation and reporting
was also conducted.

Programme objectives of increased confidence, improved self-esteem and enhanced interpersonal skills were met by all participants. They gave examples of how the programme helped them: “gain new positive friends”, “be myself again”, “recognise good and bad communication”, “learn my triggers to relapsing and handle my anger better”, “choose more wisely who I bring into my life”, “believe in myself”, “set goals and stick to them”, “practice new skills”, and “lead a group, delegate and organise”.

All participants achieved NZQA unit standards as an outcome of attending the programme. In total, 11 participants attempted NZQA Unit standards, seven participants completed Level 1 Unit 3503 (interpersonal communications), eight participants completed Level 1 Unit 496 (self-management) and eight participants completed Level 2 Unit 1827 (self-management). Four participants had completed some unit standards prior to commencing the course. However, all participants achieved at least one (additional) unit standard as an outcome of attending the course.

Every participant produced a personal plan with specific goals for future progress. As an outcome of the programme, every participant produced a pathway plan with specific goals identified such as: “take steps to get my babies back” and “go on to further study and make a better life for my family”.

All participants reported the drugs and alcohol information session and motivational and inspirational guest speakers as the most effective programme activities. In addition, 93 percent also reported healthy food options, taking turns to open and close the day, and working on NZQA unit standards as effective.

The facilitator delivery style and introduction to the model of wellbeing was well received. A strong bond was formed between the facilitator and participants, who reported that the programme had been life changing; “really inspiring” and “now I see things a lot differently”.

Probation officers reported the programme had a positive impact on the participants. The programme was of great value and exceeded expectations. Overall, probation staff noted “a big positive change” and participants were described as having “more positive thinking and uses this in her interactions with others”, able to “make better decisions and take responsibility for behaviour” as well as “less blaming of others”. This changed attitude was evidenced by participants “working towards making positive changes” and “working towards a more positive and independent lifestyle”.

The key recommendations included: extending the programme from six to eight weeks to allow a greater balance of outcomes for personal development and individual learning; reduce the dependency on one facilitator by intruding a co-facilitator; introduce mentors to assist participants toward the end of the programme and to provide ongoing support; introduce individualised pathway plans as well as personalised learning objectives to encourage further engagement with formalised learning.

A three month follow-up evaluation of Pilot One was conducted to get an indication of the ongoing impact of the programme on their lives following programme completion. Only five women could be contacted for an in-depth telephone interview in which none of them reported having re-offended since doing the programme. They were motivated to continue not to re-offend as they wanted to keep their children and saw benefit from the changes they had made in their lives including, for some, having gained housing and employment.

Pilot Two of the Whakamanahia Wahine Programme

The second pilot of the programme for ten participants ran from 4 May to 20 June 2014 with similar attendance rates and participant characteristics. This second pilot was also funded by the Department of Corrections Innovation Fund. The evaluation of the first pilot was used to amend the programme content and delivery for the second pilot, including extending the programme from six to eight weeks, introducing a co-facilitator, mentors and tailoring NZQA units participants’ needs.


The Whakamanahia Wahine programme incorporated a range of the elements identified as good practice which likely contributed to the positive changes reported by participants and probation staff. The programme provided links with mainstream agencies, provided transport to and from the service, was women-only and fostered supportive relationships with mentors and non-mentors. These elements have been discussed as good practice in community rehabilitation programmes (Bonta et al., 2013; Gelsthorpe et al., 2007; Macguire et al., 2010). Further, the programme took a strengths-based approach for participants, focusing on goal setting and skill development and allowing them to run training sessions and obtain NZQA standards. Feedback from participants suggested that these activities empowered the women to problem solve and seek educational opportunities. The women reported ongoing support networks formed between them, helping them stay focused and motivated to apply the skills learnt in the programme. A strengths-based approach underpinning these activities has been identified as important good practice. In particular a strengths-based approach appears to be particularly important for changing offenders’ perspectives on themselves and a future of non-offending (Frazer et al., 2014).

The programme also incorporated factors recognised by the Department of Corrections as reducing the risk of re-offending: addressing negative behaviours; changing personal attitudes and beliefs; developing social skills to engage positively with others; gaining life skills and experience valued by employers. Participants expressed a change in their own attitudes and this was also recognised by probation officers. Of the five women (45 percent of participants) who could be contacted to take part in the post course evaluation, none reported having re-offended. However, it is acknowledged that these participants were all low-risk offenders, the sample size was very small, the re-offending measure was self-report and the follow-up period was very short at three months.

Following completion of the second pilot, mentoring relationships provided ongoing support, and in both pilots it was noted that the programme strengthened supportive relationships between participants and probation officers. Mentors noted initial reluctance and scepticism on the part of participants often changed as the programme went on. Childcare facilities were not provided but have been suggested in Gelsthorpe et al., (2007). Childcare responsibilities limited the attendance of some participants, however the timetable was structured around the school day and the majority of participants were able to attend most sessions.

Motivational speakers and a facilitator with relatable life-experiences to the participants were identified as positive elements of the programme and reflect the international literature on the importance of peers in rehabilitation motivation (Devilly et al, 2005) and the increased use of identity-based peers and mentors in programmes for offenders (Fletcher and Batty, 2012).

The programme thus appears to be largely in line with international good practice for reducing recidivism and the elements of the programme noted in this literature should be retained in future programmes which may attract mainstream funding.


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