YOU’VE been sending us your questions all week, and today we put them to Swindon Women’s Aid Director Olwen Kelly, as she took to the Hotseat.
Here’s what she had to say to your burning questions.
Q. Do you feel the unduly lenient sentences that are routinely handed down to those convicted of domestic abuse have contributed to the increase in the number of such crimes being committed?
A. Yes I do. I believe more needs to be done in tackling domestic violence in Swindon. There needs to be a more joined up approach from the police, the CPS, and the courts if we’re going to deal with this effectively. More often than not, we see individuals coming before the court who have committed horrendous physical violence or sexual violence against victims and their sentences are wholly inadequate. Many are walking away to be found not guilty or with a very basic community sentence. Also in Swindon and Wiltshire, some are taking longer than a year to come before the court, by which time witnesses and victims no longer feel they’re in a strong position when facing the courts in terms of sentencing.
We often find that a perpetrator’s behaviour is excused by the court because they may have been under the influence of alcohol and were deemed to simply lash out when we know that isn’t the case. What is also frustrating is victims will not be provided with the same support if they are deemed to be unreliable. This could involve a domestic violence victim who has previously withdrawn a statement because of fear of reprisals or threats, or because she has previously returned to a perpetrator.
When we talk to victims we will always try to ensure that they report the crime in an effort to get a successful outcome through the courts because we believe this will foster zero tolerance, but many victims feel unprotected and with trials taking too long, many of them feel under pressure.
Q. What are your comments about Erin Pizzey's position on domestic violence? (Erin Pizzey was the founder of the first shelter for women in the 70s in London for domestic violence and she feels the cause was 'hijacked' by the feminist movement and it takes 'two to tango' in a relationship.)
A. Erin Pizzey was instrumental in protecting victims of domestic violence by setting up a safe refuge in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s she was criticised by the women’s movement on some of her opinions and actions, such as domestic violence not being predominately against women and by staffing her refuge with male staff – as result having to leave the country following death threats.
Erin states her views were influenced in her early childhood – having experienced violence from her mother, she said she knew that women can be as vicious and irresponsible as men. That’s why she said she would never be a feminist - though for me being a feminist is just simply females having equal rights to males, eg. salary.
Erin’s view of ‘it takes two to tango’ – is rather simplistic. It’s like saying if I leave a window open in my house, I deserved to get burgled or if I wear a short skirt I deserve to be raped. Therefore if I don’t do what my partner wants I deserve to be beaten.
We need to remember many people are in a healthy relationship, these are built on mutual trust and respect, the relationship is equal and therefore loving. There are some relationships that are unequal, controlling and violent. Not all men are violent, but in domestic abusive relationships far more men than women are perpetrating that violence and abuse.
Q. There are two sides of a coin and under the current climate, domestic violence tends to be gender biased towards women. Do you feel the current direction will ever solve this social problem?
A. I believe that domestic violence is very much a gender associated issue. We know 89 per cent of domestic violence takes place by males against women. I believe through education and awareness raising, we have the opportunity to promote equality within relationships.
If relationships are equal, built on mutual trust and respect, there is no need for one partner to be controlling or act in a coercive way towards the other. Domestic violence isn’t just about physical abuse, it’s psychological, it’s sexual, it’s financial and it is a way of males controlling their female partners.
There’s a lot of males these days who feel threatened by females because of their changing role in society. Females have become more independent, more assertive and they have taken a stronger role in the workplace. This can make some males feel very uncomfortable.
Q. What do you think about men who seem to regard any mention of domestic abuse as an attack on them and can only respond by pointing out that, 'it happens to men too'?
A. Again, domestic violence does happen to men both within heterosexual relationships and same sex relationships, and there is an acknowledgement that male victims need support in Swindon. Women’s Aid provides that support. It’s still predominantly a gendered crime against women perpetrated by males. It’s important to recognise that the majority of males are not domestic violence perpetrators and I think sometimes the way domestic violence is reported nationally, men feel guilty by association when that is not the case. Most men have healthy, loving family relationships, most men have respect for women. I meet a lot of men who are understanding, kind individuals and many men that I meet when I’m out and about in Swindon will often approach me and say they had no idea domestic violence was so prevalent and they can’t understand how other men could do this to their partners.
Q. How many people can you accommodate at any one time?
A. We can accommodate 22 females in our emergency refuge, we have various sized accommodation, ranging from single rooms up to three bedroom flats. In just two years, we’ve accommodated over 240 women and over 434 children in our emergency accommodation, but we also work with families in the community who wish to remain in their own homes and last year, we worked with 320 families, 85 per cent of those had children, as well as a further 90 which we would call high risk victims living in the community - these are at risk of harm or death. We have quite high case loads a year, and we also run a 24 hour helpline - last year we received 1,337 calls to the helpline so it is clearly a very important service.
Q. What is their average length of stay?
A. It varies, we can have some families that come to us and may only stay one night and then decide to go back, or we can have people staying with us for up to two years. We assess them based on risk and the support that they have in place. The average length of stay would probably be about three to four months. Many of the families that come in to our refuge are unable to return home, so we have to work with them to find them alternative accommodation, support them in moving their children from local schools in to new schools, helping them with employment because they’ve had to leave their jobs because of safety and this can all take time.
Q. How do we get mental and psychological abuse further up in the priorities of many organisations that seem to only respond if there is physical injury to the victim?
A. There is still a lack of understanding amongst agencies and professionals about domestic violence.
It’s a very complex issue even though it is 2014, we still view domestic abuse as being physical so if we can’t see the black eye or the bruised ribs then it’s not domestic abuse.
In actual fact, when we talk to victims, they will tell us that the psychological abuse is far more difficult to recover from than the physical side of things because the bruises will heal in a few weeks, whereas emotional abuse can cause significant damage and can last for years.
We try to educate agencies and professionals such as the CPS, A&E departments, midwives, health visitors, social workers, police officers and others to understand the complexities of emotional abuse. Many of them at the moment feel unequipped to deal with it, they don’t feel confident to try and address it or even ask questions in order to help, so as a result, they don’t tackle it. If we’re going to make it a priority, as we should, we need more training and educational awareness for these local agencies and professionals.
Q. When we think of domestic violence, we tend to think of the ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ scenario of the younger woman being abused. But there are a lot of women now in their 60s and 70s who married young, stayed at home with the children and depended on the husband to keep them. They grew up in an era where it was acceptable for the husband to have sole control. What single piece of advice would you offer women like this?
A. This is classic. It can be very difficult for victims who have lived in previous generations where it was the norm to be completely reliant on your partner. We see many cases of older victims who are in desperately unhappy relationships and who are completely controlled. I would urge these victims to come forward, there is help available.
We work with women from the ages of 18 right up to 80. Whilst it can be difficult to see a way out when you are reliant on your partner for transport, finance, housing, but nobody should live a life where they feel uncomfortable and made to feel guilty because they go out socially. When you are so reliant on a partner, it can feel overwhelming to know what to do to imrpove your situation, but help is out there and Swindon Women’s Aid can provide advice and support.
Q. Do victims of domestic violence get enough support from the police? What more could be done?
A. Whilst police do protect victims of domestic violence, I think there needs to be an improved consistency and quality of the protection and support that they are able to provide. Many victims will not contact the police because they have been threatened with violence from their perpetrators or their perpetrators families if they do contact them.
Whilst there are specialist units that have police officers who are trained to support victims, many front line police officers who will be attending 999 calls may not be trained. As a result they will arrive at the scene and unless they can support and protect the victim from an early stage, the risk to these victims can increase.
Q. What do you think of the work Jahmene has done in raising awareness of domestic violence? Do you think it has helped it become less of a tabo o subject?
A. I think Jahmene has done a good job of being a young people’s ambassador for Women’s Aid nationally. His mother Mandy who is publicly known to have experienced horrific domestic violence, I believe, has been instrumental in highlighting the issues and it’s admirable that Jahmene has picked up on this important issue. More needs to be done to educate young people so we can help them avoid getting into abusive relationships when they become adults and to turn the tap off for future generations.