Understanding a global issue

The social work expert looking to break stigmas around the world

Content warning: this article mentions sexual violence and child abuse that some may find confronting, however there are no depictions or descriptions. Reader discretion is advised.

Dr Alankaar Sharma has a passion for social work, social justice and challenging unjust societal norms.  

The senior lecturer in social work at UOW Liverpool has been a longtime advocate for victim-survivors of child abuse and sexual violence and is dedicated to understanding and breaking stigmas around violence, gender, and sexuality in a global context. 

Dr Sharma holds both a master’s and PhD in social work, from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (India) and the University of Minnesota (US) respectively and co-founded Tulir - Centre for the Prevention & Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, one of the first NGOs in his home country of India to focus on helping child victims.  

“While doing this work, I was troubled by the fact that there was hardly any local research in India to learn about child sexual abuse. Most research studies were inaccessible to us as practitioners working in an under-resourced NGO in the global South, and in any case these studies were mostly based on research conducted in western Europe and North America. It was important to understand child sexual abuse within the Indian and South Asian context,” says Dr Sharma.  

Dr Sharma went on to co-lead research surveying two thousand young people to understand the prevalence and dynamics of child sexual abuse in India and further research on the impacts of sociocultural factors on the experiences of survivors around the world.  

He says while there is “broad stroke similarities” in the social and cultural expectations of gender and sexuality around the world, namely that most cultures exist under patriarchy, where men are valued more than women, and people are expected to obey rigid gender-related norms and practices.  

“Child sexual abuse is inextricably linked to how gender is understood and performed within a social context. It is a common theme in many cultures that men are expected to act according to strict prescriptive norms that define how to be a man in that society. For instance, men and boys are expected to be in control of their emotions and not express vulnerability. Being vulnerable and powerless is not valued highly for men in terms of gender norms associated with masculinity. My research as well as research by other scholars shows that patriarchal gender norms that define masculinity are often an obstacle to men and boys’ ability to disclose sexual abuse,” says Dr Sharma.  

However, he says that there are nuanced differences or variations between different social or cultural contexts based on their unique attributes or practices, such as family dynamics and belief systems.  

“For instance, how survivors of sexual abuse make meaning of their abuse experiences in collectivistic societies such as India can be different from survivors’ experiences in more individualistic societies like Australia or the US,” he explains.  

Bringing a global issue local 

In January 2023, Dr Sharma began his tenure at the University of Wollongong (UOW) continuing his research and teaching at the Liverpool campus in Southwestern Sydney, one of the most multicultural regions in New South Wales.  

Dr Sharma hopes that by conducting research out of a diverse region such as Liverpool will help broaden global understandings of child sexual abuse and violence. 

“In Australia, historically there has been an under-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse communities in research on sexuality and sexual violence, in terms of both researchers and research participants. My hope is to do research with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to better understand their experiences related to sexual violence, and sexual health and rights,” says Dr Sharma.  

“As a multilingual researcher from the global South, I would love to do research that is not limited to the English language to expand opportunities to participate in and influence research for some linguistically diverse communities.”