Domestic abuse happens because nobody says anything. Let’s stop it now
- Credit: Laura Dodsworth
Liz Nice finds out about how the Women’s Aid charity, Lighthouse, in Ipswich, is bringing the Expect Respect message into schools
School is hard for a lot of people. It was hard for me. I remember being told, ‘You’re the ugliest girl in the school’ and believing this, absolutely, until at least my early 20s. At one time I seriously considered getting a mask so as not to inflict myself on others and I can still remember the girl who said that to me, her name; the malicious expression on her face.
Why did I give her that much power over me? That’s hard to answer. But a lack of self esteem was at the heart of it, something many of us share, often without even realising it; so much so that when some women come to the women’s refuge in Ipswich where I was invited to visit the other week, they don’t even realise at first that the relationship they are in is abusive.
“Some women are so used to being controlled and demeaned that it takes them a while to understand that the relationship they are in is unhealthy,” said Katherine Ahluwalia, who runs the Expect Respect programme at Lighthouse in Ipswich. “When they do realise, however, they will often say, ‘Why did no one teach me about healthy and unhealthy relationships in school?”
It is precisely this failing in our education system that Katherine is hoping to address.She has begun taking Women’s Aid’s Expect Respect Educational Toolkit around local schools, working with children from reception age through to year 13.
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The toolkit is based on themes found to be effective when tackling domestic abuse, shining a light on unhealthy behaviours and helping to give children the tools they need to speak up.
Katherine and I discussed that a difficulty many children have is that our school system is geared around getting children not to question authority, so to find the voice to stand up to anyone who seems to be in a stronger position than we feel ourselves to be in can be extremely challenging.
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“No!” is a good start, Katherine advises, as well as an assertive, “I believe that’s not right, I am not happy with that..” For many though, even finding the courage for that can feel too much.
How can this be changed? Katherine believes it starts in the classroom and changes to the school curriculum will make the Expect Respect toolkit even more vital – from September 2019, all schools will be required to teach ‘relationship education’ which replaces the old sex education and seeks to give children the language to use in difficult situations, rather than merely explaining the mechanics.
“Expect Respect fits in with this perfectly,” says Katherine. “We talk to children about secrets, the differences between happy and unhappy secrets. We encourage them to share their concerns with an adult and enable peers to challenge each other about things like, ‘What’s a woman’s job?’ Peer challenge is so important. Did Harvey Weinstein’s peers challenge his behaviour? Did Jimmy Savile’s? The answer seems to be that they didn’t, and that is how abuse was allowed to go on for so long.”
The Expect Respect programme teaches younger children about kindness, respect and gender stereotypes, while helping children at the older end using role play to explore conflict resolution and discussions around what is OK.
“Is violence ever OK?” was one question we asked,” says Katherine. “One child said, yes, if you are being kidnapped’. Just by having these discussions, we can talk about the best ways to act in challenging situations. A child might then feel empowered to say, ‘My dad shouts at my mum’ or ‘My boyfriend texts me all the time, is that healthy?’ and these are things that can be followed up through safeguarding to work with families and young people to improve things at home.”
Recently, I heard about a lady in her 80s who had finally managed to leave her abusive marriage with the help of Women’s Aid.
“This is not uncommon,” Katherine told me. “If you don’t have good self esteem, you think (abuse is) what life is going to be. Bullies seem to have a sixth sense as to who they can bully and their greatest weapon is silence. People who are vulnerable to low self esteem are also vulnerable to dependency on someone who controls their every move, because they lack the confidence to believe they can manage by themselves. Once they become isolated, it can be extremely hard for them to get out.”
Katherine said it was usually adult children who helped their mothers to escape decades of abuse. This is wonderful to hear, but the idea of someone wasting so many years not knowing they deserved better breaks my heart.
“Expect Respect” says it all really. But it has to start early so that the next generation learns much sooner that you don’t have to wait almost your entire adult life to be free.
*If you would like Katherine to bring the Expect Respect programme to your school, please contact Katherine Ahluwalia, Lighthouse training co-ordinator, on 01473 228270.