Blog: Combating domestic violence through civil society
Published: 27 Feb 2020
Two women are killed every week by their partner or ex-partner in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics. And the UK is not alone in this. Domestic abuse is a common crime that cuts across all groups around the globe. Its impact is widespread and long lasting, harming direct victims, their children, families and communities.
I wanted to use my Fellowship in 2011 to learn more about how other countries deal with domestic violence, in the hope of bringing back knowledge that could help adapt and add to our approach in the north-east of England.
"We know that domestic abuse incorporates a wide range of behaviours that can cause a continuum of harms, and we need responses that are as individual as the people affected."
At the time I was working as Chief Officer of My Sisters Place, a domestic violence charity that provides support services to women in Middlesbrough. As a third sector service provider in this field, and a serving magistrate with a keen interest in criminal justice, I felt privileged to have been awarded a Fellowship.
I began my travels in America, where I visited Minneapolis, Duluth and Houston. As reported by many Fellows, the WCMT ‘badge’ opens many doors, and I met some amazing people who were happy to share their learning with me. I particularly wanted to see the Co-ordinated Community Response Model in action; a model that the UK Government has adapted to combat domestic abuse, originally developed in Duluth Minnesota and expanded upon in Minneapolis.
When I was there, I discovered that the model was impressive, with a dedicated Justice Centre built around a Specialist Court, and a real energy and commitment from the Judiciary and Police. However, the significant financial investment it required was eye-watering and, as openly discussed, the levels of homicide and serious violence were still very high.
My travels then took me to Belize in Central America, which was interesting for me as Belize is a former British colony with an inherited English legal system. The police still prosecute cases in Belize courts, and it did feel a bit like stepping back in time or to a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, with stiflingly hot, overcrowded court rooms.
I attended the magistrates’ courts for three consecutive days, expecting to witness a domestic abuse case being prosecuted. At the end of day three, I managed to secure a meeting with the judge, only to be told that domestic abuse cases are not heard in the criminal courts. I was told, “Domestic abuse affects children and the wider family system, and we would need to take all of that into consideration, so all cases go to the family court for prosecution where we can ensure the welfare of all.” This seemed like a pragmatic approach.
I travelled on to Peru, where I stopped in Lima and probably had the biggest ‘lightbulb’ moment, in terms of really gaining a different understanding of the importance of culture, values and beliefs. In Peru, life is hard for many families. Its criminal justice system doesn’t reach the whole of the country, and some ‘justice’ functions are devolved locally. There was a case under discussion at the time, where local ‘community justice’ had been administered in the form of a domestic abuse perpetrator being beaten by a group of women. Many such stories abounded regarding so-called ronderos – local volunteers appointed to take care of crime and disorder in their own communities in accordance with local ‘rules’. Whilst this sort of approach raises eyebrows and concerns, context matters. By this part of my trip I was much more open-minded, rather than making judgements.
I also looked at the provision of refuge in some areas of Peru, which I felt reflected local women’s culture and pride. In the refuges I visited, women shared their skills and used their strong work ethic to good effect in future planning. I didn’t once hear the word ‘victim’ in this context.
I ended my trip in Brazil, where I spent some time with brave non-government organisations that were tackling youth crime, gun and gang culture, alongside domestic abuse and other challenges.
I didn’t find a single definitive answer to domestic violence on any of the far-flung places I visited. However, I did gain an energy, understanding and inspiration that’s difficult to put into words. I feel that I gained a more global view of culture, community and the impact of the state.
I returned to My Sisters Place with a renewed ambition, which I think you can only gain by stepping away for a while and coming back with a fresh view of the world. Working with a great team of people, we started to develop more ambitious plans and, by 2013, we had managed to pick up two major national awards, including the Big Lottery Charity of the Year.
The team and Rebecca (front left) being presented with the Big Lottery Charity of the Year of award
My Sisters Place started to attract attention, as we were securing good outcomes for our beneficiaries and able to demonstrate the effectiveness of our work. Opportunities soon begun to open up and I was invited to sit on various strategic panels and boards, to look at developing best practice and identify ways of doing things differently. This was hugely beneficial in creating more opportunities for learning through sharing experiences and knowledge of other communities and approaches. In 2017, I was invited by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice to present on the role of civil society in tackling domestic abuse, at the UK-China Dialogue in Beijing.
So, where does all this learning take my thinking?
We know that domestic abuse incorporates a wide range of behaviours that can cause a continuum of harms, and we need responses that are as individual as the people affected.
Clearly, we need a national strategy and a robust criminal justice response. However, we also need to be aware of the diversity of needs, the cultural differences within and between our communities, the sensitivity required to enter such private spaces and the risk of alienation. I hear all too often, in discussions, a reference to ‘them’, ‘those people’, ‘that community’, as though domestic and sexual violence only happened to ‘other people’, when we should be talking about ‘us’, as few of us are untouched by this issue.
My Sister's Place has continued to develop tailored services that meet local needs, and has just been chosen as one of only five charities in the country to develop a national model through the Big Lottery Accelerator Programme, promoting the specialist counselling service that we have developed over the last 10 years.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve been working with another domestic violence charity, Wearside Women in Need, based in Sunderland. I’m about to move into the Director’s post there, which I’m really looking forward to, leaving My Sisters Place in very capable hands. I’m also involved in a commission in Barking and Dagenham, looking at the best way to help the local community to support its members.
My leaving present? An MBE for services to victims of domestic violence. It’s humbling to get recognition for doing a job that’s so energising and worthwhile. I was a bit overwhelmed when I received the notification, but I will accept with pride on behalf of all the third sector staff and volunteers who work so hard to keep women and children safe.