Breaking a vicious circle

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Jerome Monahan looks at a video that can help break the silence on domestic violence - even with primary age pupils

Louise is married to Phil. Often Phil comes home from work tired. He thinks Louise is extravagant with "his" money. Frequently, he puts Louise down when they talk. Sometimes Louise just cannot get it right - everything she says antagonises him. Two nights ago, he insisted they had sex. Last night, he got into a fury and grabbed her around the throat. Luckily, Louise's friend Jackie dropped in and interrupted him. This is not the latest storyline from a soap, but the opening sequence on a new video designed to teach young people about the realities of domestic violence - currently experienced by one in four women at some point in their lives.

"The importance of raising this subject with young people cannot be underestimated," says Vicky Grosser, co-ordinator of Westminster Domestic Violence Forum (WDVF), the multi-agency group that commissioned the video and accompanying resources pack. "The earlier we can develop a picture in young people's minds of the way relationships should be the better."

The "Louise and Phil" story occupies the first part of the tape and is designed for secondary schools. In between each scenario, students are asked a series of open questions about what they have seen and what the characters should do. Reactions are also sought about the best response Jackie could make to her friend's plight. At the end, a stark list appears detailing crimes already committed in this abusive relationship - ranging from harassment to rape and attempted murder.

The second part of the video was shot at Wilberforce Primary School in Westminster. It shows whole-class situations in which children develop their understanding of friendship and capacity for trust, empathy and consideration through a variety of circle activities and simple drama games. Interviews with Wilberforce teachers emphasising the importance of the work punctuate these sequences. "You have to start young, when people are still developing emotional patterns and first having to deal with difficulties in friendships," explains Year 4 teacher, Maggie Brinklow.

"Obviously, it would be inappropriate at key stage 1 or 2 to jump to a discussion of domestic abuse," stresses consultant Thangam Debbonaire, creator of both pack and video. "The materials are designed to be revisited throughout a pupil's career. At the beginning, the focus is on their getting a clear sense of what it is to have safe relationships and how to negotiate. By tackling the aggression that underlies bullying and racism, you go a long way to helping them question the use of violence later in their lives."

For Anna Jakubiak of WDVF and Phoenix (a domestic violence survivors' group), the work is crucial. At eight years old, her eldest son witnessed her being "beaten unconscious and kicked from room to room" by a partner.

"We must instil the idea that zero-tolerance applies to violence," she says. "It's the kind of thing that people should learn at home, but what if home is not the safe place it should be? The message that violence is unacceptable needs constant reinforcement."

It is a view that Wilberforce headteacher Angela Piddock supports:

"Clearly, this is a sensitive topic and it may well generate disclosures from children." (The teachers' notes in the WDMF pack underline the close correlation between domestic violence and sexual abuse.) "But all schools have procedures for dealing with such matters."

Angela Piddock is similarly robust about the possible cultural sensitivities that can attend discussions of women's status. "Violence is violence - whatever its context," she stresses. "Watching the teachers here working with the children using these activities made me enormously proud," she adds. "I am amazed at how open the children can be, how much they will share."

For Maggie Brinklow, a magical moment came in an exercise in which the children treat each other like putty, turning statues representing "anger" into "friendship". On a more worrying note, Thangam Debbonaire points out the difficulty of preaching non-violence to older students in the present climate - "mention the fact that aggression is never the answer and you tend to get a hollow laugh."

For details of the domestic violence pack and video contact Vicky Grosser, tel: 0208 960 3266 or email: 24-hour helpline tel: 0870 599 5443Women's Aid Federation of England Helpline tel: 08457 023 468ChildLine tel: (free) 0800 1111 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) tel: (free) 0800 800 5000 (calls won't show up on your bill)

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