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For girls to fulfil their potential, we need to understand the whole picture

Yesterday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and marked the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. We know that empowered and free, girls can live the lives they want; carving out careers and the economic independence to make their own decisions, loving who they want and how they want. And yet, in the UK, we’re obscuring our ability to help girls achieve this huge potential – often through our own very good intentions.  

1.5 million girls (0 - 15 year olds) alive in the UK today will have their life chances undermined by an experience of domestic abuse as they reach adulthood. They will experience domestic abuse from an intimate partner, an experience that will affect their wellbeing, their safety and their freedom to be who they want. Someone who claims to love them will in fact deeply harm them.  

One of the reasons abuse continues to be of epidemic proportions in our country is that we treat the causes, the abusive experience and the consequences as if they all happened in isolation. Schools and local authorities stagger under the weight of multiple strategies on girls’ safety and wellbeing, making it hard to understand how to coordinate and prioritise. And then – nothing. As girls reach the age of 16 or 17 they disappear from view, too ‘old’ for many support mechanisms but still deemed too young or unsuitable for others. Then we wait. We wait to see who emerges as an adult for whom individual issues – health, mental health, employment, housing – need to be fixed. If we took the time and did the work earlier to see the whole person, as her experiences begin to form around her, we would have a far greater chance of supporting her to live the life she chooses. 

It’s time for comprehensive investment into research which explores how multiple experiences and factors, as they accumulate for a girl in early life, could contribute to - or prevent - an experience of abuse later on. By the same token, it’s long overdue that we examine in detail why some boys grow into the young and older men who use controlling, abusive behaviours in their closest relationships. For both, we need to better understand how early influences and experiences can be overturned or reinforced, so we stop harm from happening in the first place rather than responding long after it starts.  

The identities and stories of 1.5 million girls are rich and varied. Building the right evidence base from research, practical frontline expertise, and the voices of girls and boys themselves, we can hugely improve the way we respond to domestic abuse.   

In addition to this whole person, whole picture approach – which puts the individual at the centre of the response at the earliest stage, we need national, government-led policy on those most commonly using abuse. Boys are more likely to harm others and themselves, and are less likely to talk about it unless they have safe, appropriate spaces to do so. We urge the government, through its upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, to create a response for those boys who are at risk of using abusive behaviours. It shouldn’t surprise any of us that there’s a strong correlation between the boys who do this and other harmful behaviour which can accompany it or follow. Yet boys are subject to just as many – if not more – separate strategies to address what might happen in their lives. Behaviour is much harder to change once it’s become embedded. It’s also impossible to change if we keep viewing boys as if one facet of their life or behaviour was somehow separate to all the others. 

We need an overhaul in public understanding, so all of us can play our part. Domestic abuse doesn‘t respect postcodes, income or educational standards, just like it doesn’t sit in a neat little box in isolation from the rest of our lives. The actor David Amess, talking about playing a character who experienced abuse in a same-sex relationship, said that when he started to read about the dynamics of abuse, he realised it had been all around him his entire life. This is a common experience; when people begin to realise what abuse and its long-term impact look like, suddenly they start to notice the prevalence of it amongst their friends, family and colleagues.   

Resources are tight. Every reason, then, for us to recognise how people’s experiences relate and overlap, particularly when it comes to abuse. If we see the whole girl, we give ourselves and her so much more chance of reducing opportunities for abuse to happen in the first place, and for her to reach all of that vast potential without the pain that can currently come along the way.

We need to take domestic abuse as seriously as national security

Of the ten years I spent working in government, some of my fastest and most effective learning came from working in the underground bunker known as the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, or COBR. This time taught me a huge amount about the way people work under pressure, and how a world class response to threats to life comes about by hard work and commitment, not by accident.

Of the time I spent in COBR most was in 'exercise' mode. That is, a simulation of a terrorist incident through which multiple parts of government, blue light and sensitive agencies work together in response to a steady feed of information that comes to them over the course of 2-3 days.

People say that government and even the UK's front line responses can be slow, that big institutional juggernauts can't be turned quickly. It just isn't true. Nor is it true that silos and turf wars between different parts of a response are inevitable. Because we 'exercise' the national security response, investing time from hundreds – sometimes thousands – of staff, from specialist bomb disposal to Ministers, environmental experts to traffic cops, we have a response that reflects i) a culture that works together at pace for safety ii) an operating model with highly refined guidance, practised and practised and practised again.

We know a minimum of 100 adult lives were lost to domestic abuse last year. Those were the adult homicides, a very high proportion of them women. We don't have accurate figures for the adult suicides or the deaths of children in domestic abuse situations, nor do we know how many people using abusive behaviours took their own lives. So 100 is a highly conservative figure for the human loss. The figure has hovered stubbornly around the same level for years.

I know we can't operate at the tempo COBR does all year round to get domestic abuse deaths down to zero. I know that isn't a sustainable model for response. But I also know that until we offer even a small proportion of the time, money and attention we spend on national security to our right to be safe behind closed doors, we're accepting abuse as inevitable in a way that's utterly unthinkable for harm that happens on our streets.

SafeLives doesn't have a bunker and we can't get thousands of professionals exercising for a 72 hour period. We can, however, bring some of the urgency, low tolerance and sheer bloody-minded won't-let-this-happen-again determination to a quiet corner of Westminster this Thursday afternoon. I'm delighted that a Minister and nearly 60 senior professionals have chosen to join us for the afternoon. The incredible spirit that prevails in the COBR bunker has been forged in adversity. So for the horrific adverse experience that domestic abuse represents, and the threat to life it presents: if not now, when?

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Why we're shining a Spotlight on LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse

What comes to mind when you hear 'domestic abuse'? The chances are that most people see a heterosexual couple, in which the man is physically or emotionally abusive to the woman. Of course we know that the majority of people experiencing domestic abuse are women, and the majority of perpetrators are men. But for too long those who fall outside of this group have been ‘hidden’ from the services that should be supporting them, as our new report shows. 

In 2016 we started our Spotlights series, which aims to shine a light on the experiences of different groups of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, who face additional barriers to accessing support. Our latest Spotlight focuses on LGBT+ people, and the services and professionals who support them. We’ve brought together the voices of survivors, professionals and other experts, alongside our own research and our partners Stonewall and Galop

In all our work we are guided by the evidence: research and data, practice expertise from those working to support survivors, and most importantly the lived experience of survivors and their loved ones. All this evidence tells us that there is no ‘typical’ victim – or perpetrator – of domestic abuse, and we need to challenge the misconception that this devastating crime only happens to one particular group. We believe that if you are experiencing domestic abuse, you deserve the right response at the right time, with the support you need to be safe and rebuild your life – whoever you are and whatever shape the abuse takes.  

During the Spotlight we heard about the barriers faced by gay and bisexual men, who too often feel that services aren’t ‘for’ them, despite experiencing high levels of sexual violence in their intimate relationships. We heard from Suzie*, a trans woman who experienced emotional and physical abuse from her wife and was able to become safe and recover with the help of a specialist LGBT+ Idva. We heard from Sophie*, a bisexual woman who survived sexual and emotional abuse in an early relationship. 

What has been so clear throughout the Spotlight is the way that a person’s sexuality or gender identity can be used against them by an abusive partner – and the ways in which societal attitudes add to the impact. Even in 2018, threats to ‘out’ a person can be used to control them, and for many survivors an abusive relationship still feels safer than a world outside which is hostile to their identity.  

These experiences are reflected in our data, which highlights serious impacts on LGBT+ survivors’ mental health and wellbeing: 

  • LGBT+ victims are almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide,  

  • More than twice as likely to have self-harmed,  

  • More likely to face abuse from multiple perpetrators,  

  • Twice as likely to have experienced historic abuse from a family member. 

It’s clear that we still have a long way to go until LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse are seen, heard and supported in a way that works for them. We need agencies and services to be able to identify victims and provide tailored support. We need greater awareness around the fact that domestic abuse can and does happen in all communities, and we need to work towards a society where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are no longer barriers to reaching out and asking for help.  

The process of running the Spotlight has allowed us at SafeLives to build powerful partnerships with Stonewall, Galop and local specialist services, and has started empowering conversations between colleagues – we know that we ourselves still have some work to do. We want to share these findings far and wide, to make sure that no one has to go through domestic abuse alone – whoever you are.  

A choice no one should have to face

A home is more than bricks and mortar. It’s where I should feel most at ease, most myself. The sanctuary to come back to at the end of a long, tiring day. But thousands of adults and children making their way home this afternoon, when they open the front door, are hoping in their hearts that it won’t be ‘one of those nights’ – again. Home is a place of fear and tension. Two million adults had an experience of domestic abuse in England and Wales last year so if this is my home and my experience I'm not alone – but I might well feel it. 

Many families are facing an impossible choice. A choice between living in a home of fear and intimidation, and an uncertain future of homelessness - where would I go? Might it be worse than what I'm living through now? It’s a choice no one should have to make. Being expected to flee, into the uncertainty of not knowing where you will be housed from one week to the next, is not acceptable. We have to help survivors and their children to be safe – and safe means suitable, sustainable and long-term housing. We can't expect adults or children to be able to rebuild their lives when we're routinely taking them away from their communities and support networks.

The nature of an abusive experience is that it can strip away your identity, isolating you from supportive friends and family. And yet the current system further entrenches this after I leave a dangerous home; it removes me from my local community, my sense of belonging, putting distance between family and friends that are a vital resource to help me rebuild. As one survivor put it to us ‘it’s like leaving part of yourself behind’.

Government data tells us that 10% of all people looking to be re-housed say that domestic abuse is the cause. We believe the real number is far greater.  St Mungo’s finds that a third of the women they support are homeless due to domestic abuse.

Our research, published today, also shows that too often it is survivors and their children who are expected to uproot themselves in order to escape the abuse. It shows that those who do become homeless – particularly women – can be vulnerable to further abuse, falling into a cycle of abuse and homelessness that can seem impossible to escape. Perpetrators of abuse are currently more effective at identifying and acting on harmful experiences than those of us with a duty to protect people from them. This cannot continue.

In the best cases, agencies are collaborating to work out how a survivor can stay safely in their own home. They recognise that the presumption that it must be the survivor who packs their bags and leaves, when it is the perpetrator causing the harm, is outdated. A stronger enforcement response from the police, housing, children's services and others, working closely with specialist domestic abuse services, can focus disruptive action on the perpetrator, making the home safer and holding them to account if they continue to try and harass or threaten the victim. Why should anyone lose their home for something that they did not cause?

These instances, in which agencies think laterally about how to address the behaviour of the perpetrator while supporting the survivor, are still too rare. It is still imperative to leave to be safe in too many cases. 

Tonight, the majority of us will sleep somewhere safe and of our choosing. This should be the reality for all of us – everyone has the right to be safe at home.

 

Suzanne Jacob OBE is Chief Executive of SafeLives

In Claire*'s words: being a Pioneer

Claire* is a SafeLives Pioneer. She experienced years of emotional abuse and manipulation from her ex-partner. A former translator and journalist, Claire – alongside three other women – went on to found the charity VOICES, which supports survivors to rebuild their lives. Here she explains what being a Pioneer means to her.

The German word “vote” and “voice” is the same: “Stimme”

Not having an equal vote within a relationship feels like having no voice. Being a Pioneer for SafeLives, for me, is all about strengthening the voices of others to challenge abusive behaviour.

I got involved with SafeLives in the first place because of a simple idea to found a singing group for people like me, recovering from the effects of abusive relationships. That initial contact led to the community group I was part of becoming involved in consultation and eventually, to my joining SafeLives’ Family Friends and Survivors consultation forum.

Our local group became the charity VOICES, which I now run, providing holistic support and services for survivors together with training and consultation. 

Working as one of the SafeLives Pioneers, there is a real feeling of strength and purpose in being part of the national conversation on challenging domestic abuse, and I would like to see as many survivor voices as possible have the opportunity to be heard in the months and years to come.

*Name changed for safety

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