Regulating the restraint of women in mental health and disability services settings: Designing gender-sensitive laws and guidelines for minimising and eliminating the use of restraint across sectors

Dr Yvette Maker1

1University of Melbourne, Carlton, Australia


Human rights bodies increasingly characterise the use of physical, mechanical and chemical restraint as violations of human rights, and call for their minimisation and elimination. People who have been subject to these practices in mental health and disability service settings have reported pain, physical and psychological injury, and trauma as consequences of their use.

Researchers have begun to consider the gendered dimension of the use of restraint. While research is limited, some studies have suggested that women’s experiences differ considerably from those of men, and that women are treated differently than men in situations where restraint is used. For instance, women have reported feelings of vulnerability and re-traumatisation associated with past experiences of gendered violence and abuse, especially when male staff are involved in restraining them. Scholars have argued that a greater consideration of gendered power relations and assumptions about the causes of women’s ‘challenging behaviour’ is needed in this field.

This paper is part of a larger project to design model laws and guidelines for reducing, with a view to eliminating, the use of physical, mechanical and chemical restraint in mental health, aged care, and disability settings across Australia. At present, policies and guidelines in some states and territories mention gender as a relevant consideration when restraint is used, but do not generally provide detailed guidance. The paper proposes that laws and guidelines regulating restraint must address gender issues in order to promote the full realisation of women’s human rights. This may require, for example, including women with lived experience of restraint in designing and implementing alternatives to restraint; and improving staff training on the influence of gendered power dynamics and gendered assumptions about women’s behaviour on decisions to apply restraint.


Yvette Maker is a Senior Research Associate at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, the University of Melbourne. She has a background in law and social policy and her current work focuses on the disability- and gender-related dimensions of law, policy and practice. She has a particular interest in the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the impacts of Australian social policy (particularly income support policy) on women and persons with disabilities and the role of law and policy in the provision of support and/or care for children, persons with disabilities and older people.

Yvette is currently engaged in research, led by Prof Bernadette McSherry, to develop model laws and guidelines to reduce, with a view to eliminating, the use of various forms of restraint on persons with disabilities in Australia’s mental health, disability and aged care sectors.

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