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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.

Campaigners against domestic abuse. Photo: Getty

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.