Hit Home

26th June 2009 at 01:00
Domestic abuse has devastating and sometimes fatal consequences. Hannah Frankel looks at the plight of young victims who are often unaware of the crimes they're enduring, or even committing

Erin's ex-boyfriend was very controlling. "He used to check my phone, tell me what to wear and who I couldn't be friends with," says the 17- year-old. "On one occasion he slapped me in front of his friends because I `answered him back'."

Domestic abuse of this kind is staggeringly widespread. Reports have found that as many as 40 per cent of teenagers have been in an abusive relationship, and 70 per cent of teenage mothers. Two females are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner in the UK.

At least five teenage girls were killed by their former boyfriends in Britain last year alone. One of them was Arsema Dawit (above), who was just 15 years old when she was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in central London.

She had dumped Thomas Nugusse after complaining about his possessive and controlling behaviour, including one incident when he punched her in the face for saying hello to a male friend. He was found responsible for Arsema's death last month.

Despite its prevalence and devastating consequences, young people are still unsure what domestic abuse actually is.

Although the majority were aware that violence constitutes abuse, only a quarter of respondents to a recent Refuge survey understood the more subtle forms of control, such as jealousy, humiliation and possessiveness.

"Domestic abuse doesn't mean a lot to many teenagers, so we tend to talk about unhealthy relationships instead," says Susie McDonald, education manager of Tender, which runs drama workshops on domestic abuse and sexual violence in schools across the capital.

"A lot of young men don't see why they should respect girls and a lot of girls don't realise they should be respected. There's a lot of sexual exploitation. I've heard of girls who have had sex with one or more gang member as part of an initiation process."

The Tender sessions aim to identify abuse, and signpost young people to support and challenge attitudes. One boy had a very narrow view of sexual harassment until he attended one of Tender's workshops. "If you're talking about being touched up along the corridor, then every girl in this classroom has been affected," he said.

Boys and girls are under immense pressure to have sex or boast about their sexual conquests, says Sarah Nelson, who researches and writes about child sexual abuse at the University of Edinburgh. Schools must explore the issues of consent, coercion and mutual respect if attitudes are to change. "We have to look at how we can strengthen girls' assertiveness so that they can recognise and report sexual harassment and coercion," Ms Nelson says.

Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence and director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) at the London Metropolitan University, strongly agrees. She says girls are being "pressured at best and coerced at worst" to have sex. Instead of the "plumbing and prevention" approach to sex education, schools should challenge boys' and girls' misconceptions.

"Young men who think they are entitled to sex need to be challenged, while young women must be taught how to resist pressure to have sex," she says. "We almost need to go back to the Seventies and Eighties, when we taught young people about the importance of sexual consent."

Up to a quarter of young men think that it's acceptable to hit a woman in some situations, according to a survey in 2002. Tender spreads the message that this is never acceptable. It recognises this zero-tolerance approach may jar with some youngsters who have experienced or witnessed abuse at home. Sometimes, teachers can implicitly condone abuse.

"A teacher in Ealing told me that her school was in a largely Muslim area where young men had very entrenched views about women," says Ms McDonald. "Then I went to a school in Dagenham and heard exactly the same about a teacher's white working-class boys. People often say the religious or cultural element is an important factor with abuse, but that's part of the excuse culture we're trying to avoid."

The Havering Tuition Centre, a pupil referral unit in Essex, provides education for Year 10 and 11 pupils with a range of medical, mental or emotional issues. "Their low self-esteem makes them vulnerable to low expectations and relationships that could become abusive," says Wendy Richardson, head of PSHE.

But through exploring healthy and unhealthy relationships with Tender in a safe environment, pupils began to see them in a different way. "It's made them think about their behaviour and responses within relationships," adds Ms Richardson, "and has given them things to look out for."

Spotting these early indicators is crucial. Refuge - which offers emergency accommodation to women and children who have experienced domestic violence - launched a national campaign last summer that highlighted the early warning signs of abuse. It stressed that if a woman is forced to change her behaviour out of fear of her partner, she is being abused.

"We often see Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personalities. One minute they're charming, the next they're aggressive," says Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, which helps 1,000 people every day, two-thirds of whom are children.

"They may humiliate their girlfriend in public, pressurise them to have sex, constantly criticise her or cut her off from her family and friends. Victims can become very isolated. They'll often blame themselves."

Most young women who fail to report abuse say it is because they must have provoked their boyfriend in some way. Erin's ex-boyfriend always made her feel as if she deserved to be hit or verbally abused.

"He made me feel really bad about myself and that I was always the one in the wrong," she says. "If I did what he said, things would be OK. I wish I'd known then that his behaviour was the problem, not mine."

In keeping with victim-blaming attitudes, many young women sympathise with the abuser. When Chris Brown allegedly assaulted his pop singer girlfriend Rihanna earlier this year, girls weren't sure what to think. One teenager, who had been abused herself, believed Rihanna was at fault.

Unpicking warped ideas about justifiable violence or bullying needs to be explored in schools, says Eighteen And Under, a charity that offers support to young people (boys and girls), who are being abused.

It has run Violence is Preventable (VIP) programmes in schools for more than a decade. One of these schools is Montrose Academy in Angus, perched in a relatively rural area some 30 miles from the nearest city. Some young people become frustrated with the limitations of the local town, says Stuart Blair, principal teacher.

"Like everywhere, there's a certain amount of drinking and fighting at the weekends, which can sometimes spill into aggression towards girlfriends and others," he says. "The VIP practitioner looked at how drinking can make people react differently. Pupils explored whether they could turn the other cheek."

If children talk about abuse, teachers need to be ready, says Laurie Matthew, co-ordinator of Eighteen And Under. "When playing a game about whether it's ever OK to hit a woman, a child may say, `that happened to me', before moving on quickly," she says. "It's easy to miss. The adult's job is to catch it and encourage the child to share further."

Among older children, the VIP work is more about looking at relationships and how and why men sometimes take the dominant role. "A high percentage of young people really do think that women are inferior in some way," says Ms Matthew. "It's astounding."

Advanced discussions can ask why this is. If pupils do not get the answer they need from school, they will pick up ideas elsewhere - in the media or even pornography. But the media, which sexualises women on one hand and calls them promiscuous on the other, adds to misconceptions, says Ms Nelson.

A case in point is Chantelle Stedman, the 15-year-old who hit the headlines when she had a baby earlier this year with baby-faced Alfie Patten, 13. He thought he was the father until a DNA test proved otherwise. Six other boys stepped forward to claim paternity, one of whom was the biological dad. Chantelle was left distraught after being branded a slut.

"Stories like this are usually accompanied with salacious headlines which despair at young people's promiscuous tendencies," says Ms Nelson. In fact, teenage pregnancy is a strong indicator of sexual abuse or exploitation. Girls who are being abused are four to six times more likely to become pregnant during their teenage years, studies show.

"Far too often children who are being coerced into sex are being dismissed as promiscuous," adds Ms Nelson. "What they really need is expert care and early intervention."

Gender inequality in society reinforces unhelpful stereotypes. "Wherever there is an imbalance of power, it is inevitable some will abuse it," says Ms Horley. "It sends out the message that one group has a right to dominate or control another."

Learning about the signs of domestic abuse in teacher training would help, she says, as would making it a compulsory element of PSHE. "More training would boost teacher confidence," she adds. "With a whole-school approach, affected pupils will have a better chance of educational success."

Erin knows she was fortunate not to become just another statistic: "I was lucky to leave, but others might not be," she says. "Young people have to spot the signs early." Those who fail to identify the signals could end up paying the ultimate price.

www.tender.org.uk; www.violenceispreventable.org.uk; www.refuge.org.uk


- Listen and believe. But don't push for details or be judgmental of them or the abuser.

- Clarify early on that you may need to inform the school's child protection officer if necessary.

- Try to assess whether they are being harmed or are at risk.

- Reassure them that they've done the right thing and tell them they're not to blame.

- Make notes of any injuries and write down what they say as accurately as possible.

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