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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Jeremy Corbyn has defied the odds and embarrassed his critics

The pundits were wrong, writes Liam Young. 

On Tuesday I said that Labour would need time to show any drastic improvement in nation-wide elections. With the results now clear I still hold to that premise. After a scary result in Scotland, a ‘holding on’ in Wales and a rather better than expected showing in England it is clear that the public has produced a mixed bag of results. But for Labour, something very interesting has happened.

Before the results were announced pundits were predicting roughly 200 seat losses for the Labour party across local councils. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s strongest opponents suggested that Labour would lose councils in the South owing to the anti-austerity message being viewed as irrelevant. There was also the suggestion that Labour would gain votes in the heartland of the North where it already controlled a great number of seats. It seemed that the pundits were wrong on both counts.

One thing is clear and undeniable. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has defied the odds at this election. It looks like the party will lose no more than 30 council seats and that its vote share on 2015 will be up by roughly 4 per cent at the expense of the Tories. People will rightly say that this is depending on the standard the results are measured by.

But I think that John McDonnell made a convincing argument last night on exactly how to judge this performance. Given that many simply want to spend time speculating about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it seems entirely reasonable to measure Labour’s success based on the party’s movement since he became leader. As mentioned above if this is taken as the standard Labour has increased its share of the vote and has beat the Tories after being some 14 points behind in the polls just a few months ago.

Commentators were arguing even at the point of polls closing that Labour would lose control of key councils such as Southampton, Harlow, Carlisle and Nuneaton. Yes – everybody remembers Nuneaton. But these predictions proved false. Labour did not just hold on to these areas but in a great deal of them the party increased its share of the vote and indeed its share of council seats. Labour has truly defied the odds across England.

The information that was shared in the weeks before the election on Thursday suggested that with Labour’s current position in the polls it would lose 170 seats. Some went as far as to suggest we would lose towards the 300 mark given the crisis Labour found itself enveloped in during the run up to voting. Opponents were kind enough to note that if we achieved parity with the Tory vote we would only lose 120 council seats.

While any loss is regrettable I have made my view clear on why Labour faced an uphill climb in these elections. Despite the rhetoric we have lost just over 20 seats. I agree with John McDonnell’s call this morning that it is time for the ‘begrudgers’ to ‘put up or shut up’. No wonder they are being so quiet.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.