Campaigners against domestic abuse. Photo: Getty
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From surviving to leading: the women changing how we look at domestic abuse

How women as community leaders can combat domestic abuse.

The past week has seen action from all parties on the issue of violence against women and girls. Yesterday the Liberal Democrats announced that sex and relationship education should be compulsory for all children from age seven and Labour appointed Seema Malhotra MP to focus on tackling violence against women and girls. Last week, the government described its plans to reopen the debate around making domestic abuse a crime.  All of this at the very least provokes welcome discourse on an issue which service providers, communities and politicians continue to struggle to address.

As Movement for Change Community Organiser for the North West of England, my work revolves largely around health and social care. In February this year, the women of Barrow-in-Furness came together to turn their anger about the acceptance of domestic abuse within our community into action to change this. Six local women took a lead. Some have experienced domestic abuse, others have seen the effects of this on loved ones.

They set about asking questions that it seems had not been asked of local citizens before; “What do you think is acceptable in a relationship?” “What constitutes a happy and positive relationship?” “What is not acceptable?” “Why?” The outcomes suggested that people do know what they want to see in their own relationships, in their children’s relationships, in the people around them.  Trust was the most common answer.  Laughter, equality, respect, friendship all featured high in the over 200 responses. Violence was felt to be unacceptable, with people expressing this quite strongly in their responses.

Why then does Cumbria – along with many other parts of the UK – continue to experience high rates of domestic abuse?  A report commissioned by the Cumbria Police and Crime Commissioner earlier this year makes sensible recommendations on this.  However, what the women found in many of their conversations, was a much less black and white response.

It seemed that where violence as a physical manifestation of abuse was widely agreed to be unacceptable, many people, male and female, had no recognition of what constituted other forms of abuse. Similarly if an example of abusive behaviour, as defined by the Home Office, was provided by means of explanation, people were reluctant to describe that behaviour as abusive or wrong. What it did do, in many interactions, was render people silent and thoughtful – it created a tension in the conversation which couldn’t be filled with a “right” or “wrong” answer.  It created space for this to be thought about, discussed and considered.

I listened to two young women disagree with each other as to whether the scenario they had watched – a young man taking control of his partner’s mobile phone and issuing her with a warning about texting people he disapproves of – was acceptable or not.  On the whole, the conclusion they came to was probably not – but, they agreed, there was something about the situation which made them uncomfortable. They wanted to talk about it more with their friends.

Abuse can reduce a person to fearing for their lives, even without anyone ever having laid a finger on them. It cost Cumbria £1.76m in 2011 in treatment for mental health problems. And it can manifest itself on children in a similarly invisible on the surface but devastating way. 

The week’s events show all party recognition that domestic abuse needs to be higher on the social agenda than it has been to date. It is interesting that the actions of each of the parties this week mirrors to a great extent the actions of the women working with Movement for Change. These women are community leaders. Their courage in stepping up to represent others and addressing the issue head on led the wider community to take action. Together they negotiated with the local Police and Crime Commissioner to fund the pilot of a £5000 evidence based package of education on what positive relationships look like in a local junior school. They won the support and accolade of local politicians, councillors, Action for Children and the Youth Offending Team as well as many other service providers and the police. 

Perhaps most strikingly, they built a local movement of over a hundred people from across the community on a sunny Friday night in May. They sat them around tables with people they didn’t know, talked openly and without apology about domestic abuse in all its horrible forms, recreating that tension, that uncertainty – and then let people fill that space through talking and listening.   The women leading the project describe themselves as ordinary, local women.  In many ways, they are some of the most extraordinary individuals. Through their refusal to accept a community where domestic abuse remains unchallenged, they have demonstrated that it is experience, determination, anger about an issue, collective action and  a belief that things can be different which transforms the people you might least expect, these unlikely leaders, from  being “survivors” into pioneers.

Charlotte Smith is a Movement for Change community organiser in northwest England. Click here for information about the Movement for Change Showcase at Labour party conference.

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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