What It's Like To Be A Woman Working In Domestic Abuse Rehabilitation

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Domestic violence against women is a hidden crime that the World Health Organization (WHO) has called an epidemic. Officially, 1.3 million women are affected each year in England and Wales, but experts say this figure could be 70% higher – not just because of unreported incidents but also because of the way reported crimes are recorded. Until earlier this year, there was a limit of five on the number of 'repeat' incidents – the same thing, done under the same circumstances, often by the same person, to the same victim – that could be included in the Office for National Statistics' annual crime survey.
Advertisement
Of those that are reported, only 38 arrests are made for every 100, with 76% of prosecutions resulting in a conviction.
The numbers available may be underestimates but what they do tell us is that this is a problem on a massive scale. When we think about solutions, we usually envision victim support services like helplines, refuges and charities that lobby for policy change. These services are vital, urgent and should be protected at all costs, but it's also important to tackle the cause of the issue: the perpetrator's need for power over his (for the perpetrator is usually a man) partner.
The concept of a programme that rehabilitates the perpetrators of of domestic violence arose in the US in the 1980s. The Duluth Model (named after the Minnesota city where it was created) was developed after several months of interviews with women who had experienced domestic violence, and it works on the basis that power and control are at the root of the problem.
"Men are socialised differently to women," explains Yone Zubiaurre, a violence prevention practitioner who worked at London's Domestic Violence Intervention Programme (DVIP) for nine years. "Women are told to be 'pretty' and 'soft' and are [often] considered the weaker sex, while men are told to be strong and logical and not be in touch with their emotions. Feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness are not very masculine, and relationships are all about vulnerability and opening yourself up. Because men are socialised to not deal with these feelings, when they feel vulnerable in a relationship they can resort to coercive control and violence – most people become violent when they feel vulnerable."
Advertisement
It is important to note that domestic violence is a crime that can be carried out by all genders and sexualities, but the majority of people with whom Yone worked were heterosexual men. "Imagine something is not working in the relationship," Yone says, "communication has broken down. They don't talk to sort out their issues so he starts exerting control and becomes violent, but that violence is not going to make the relationship better. He will still feel insecure, and his partner will feel upset and scared. He feels shame but doesn't deal with that shame so starts feeling powerless again, and the cycle repeats."

Because you are the only woman there, you represent all their partners and ex-partners, they see you a little bit like the enemy. It takes a little while for them to understand that you're not.

Domestic violence prevention programmes aim to get the perpetrators to understand that all forms of physical and emotional abuse are wrong, while making sure their partners and children are safe. The programmes employ a coordinated approach across multiple agencies – which can include social services, women’s shelters, mental health services, the criminal justice system and children’s services. Although it has faced backlash from men’s rights groups, it is the most commonly used approach around the world for intervening in domestic violence against women.
Founded 25 years ago, DVIP works with people of all genders and sexualities. However, the vast majority of people using the service – either self-referred or referred via a third party such as social services or the family courts if there is a custody dispute – are heterosexual men. The charity also has specialist services for young people who are abusive and for children and parents who have experienced domestic violence.
Advertisement
Their programme covers subjects like emotional abuse, social dynamics and how women are portrayed in the media. "We cover these issues by discussing the perpetrators' own violent incidents to help them understand how they were feeling, what they were thinking, and what they were doing at the time," Yone says.
Perpetrators must first undertake an assessment to see whether they take ownership of their behaviour or whether they blame their partners. It also looks at other underlying issues such as mental health, alcohol or substance abuse, as these might need to be addressed before they are able to attend. Those with pending criminal charges for domestic violence-related crime are not eligible; the criminal justice system has its own programme called Building Better Relationships.
The 26-week programme can involve group sessions and one-to-one meetings depending on what is more suitable for the perpetrator, but Yone explains that being part of a group is most effective. "It's very powerful for someone who's never talked to anybody about domestic violence. It's a rolling programme, so there will be people who have been attending for a while, people just starting and others that are finishing. In the beginning they don't want to be there because they might lay the blame on their partner, but there will be others telling them that they felt like that too at first, and they need to give the programme a chance."
The groups are jointly run by a male and female facilitator. "If you look at the dynamics of women and men in groups [in everyday life], men are listened to more and speak more. Suddenly, a woman speaks as much as the male facilitator, sometimes more, and that's challenging," Yone explains. "Because you [as a facilitator] are the only woman there, you represent all their partners and ex-partners, they see you a little bit like the enemy. It takes a little while for them to understand that you're not, that you just want to help change their behaviour."
Advertisement
It is not an easy process for someone to start taking ownership of their actions. "They need to learn how to deal with all these difficult feelings, and that can be really hard," Yone says.
"They feel guilt at hitting their partner, otherwise would talk about it openly. It's a spiral because this person is longing for a fulfilling relationship, yet can't have that because he can't deal with the release of his emotions. A big part of the programme is about feeling comfortable talking, and learning that behaviours like systematically putting their partner down, limiting their resources, and continually shouting at them even if they don't hit them are abusive and damaging."

If they don't change, nothing will. Even if they don't stay in the same relationship they will go on to another one and repeat their behaviour.

In some cases, perpetrators return to the programme again and again. "They have been immersed in a culture of objectification of women, and we're trying to tackle some of these beliefs. Then they leave and don't have a space to talk about their feelings, so they might come back. It might be because they feel that they are starting to be emotionally abusive or violent again, and they need to do some more work."
Project Mirabal was the first major study into the effectiveness of domestic violence prevention programmes in the UK. Lasting from 2009 to 2015, researchers interviewed survivors, children and practitioners as well as the perpetrators themselves, to assess their behaviour before and after completing a programme.
The study found that physical violence reduced from 87% to 7%, and sexual abuse decreased from 30% to zero. They also looked at other areas including control, having a respectful relationship, decreased isolation, enhanced parenting and understanding the impact of domestic violence, all of which showed improvements.
Advertisement
Yone says that 80% of the partners and ex-partners of men who've completed DVIP's programme report feeling safer. Seeing this capacity for change left a huge impression on her, and led her to work for the organisation for almost a decade after initially joining as a volunteer. "Success is measured by asking how the victim survivors and the children feel, because they are the ones who will experience the changes. It is also when someone tells me their partner has said he can see their child for a longer period of time, because she's seen the change in him. It's no longer a demand, it's something they can negotiate. That is an amazing thing to see."
However, not everyone is in favour of this type of work. Women's refuges and support services across the country have been plunged into crisis as a result of the government's austerity policy; in 2016, domestic violence charity Refuge announced 80% of their funding had been cut since 2011, leading them to release a statement where they questioned "spending money on therapy for perpetrators when terrified women and children have nowhere to go". Budget cuts have also led to many of DVIP's services ending abruptly, leaving men halfway through programmes and families in limbo.
For Yone, it is not about choosing which services are more important. "We absolutely need victim support services, but it's really important that men who use violence against women are made responsible for changing their behaviour. If they don't change, nothing will. Even if they don't stay in the same relationship they will go on to another one and repeat their behaviour."
Advertisement
"If you have somebody who's been violent and abusive to their partner, and their partner says they don't want to see him again, there is a ripple effect – their children might not get to see his side of the family, their grandparents, aunties, uncles. It's really important that we tackle the issue from the root. I hope in the future the government will recognise these services are necessary for families.
"Domestic violence is not only a women's issue, it is a social issue.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
Advertisement

More from Mind

R29 Original Series