When a group of women students at Northumbria were trained to become domestic violence (DV) champions what they didn’t expect was the positivity it would generate
May 2018: I had finished my Sociology and Criminology BSc at Northumbria University, and with that came the desire to throw myself into idleness… and I did, for a week or two. Then guilt and boredom creeped in. I needed to do something productive. From my degree and volunteering at Shelter Newcastle and Crisis Skylight, I had an idea of the career I wanted. My interest and experience centred around violence against women and girls (VAWG), the rehabilitation of offenders and insecure housing. While volunteering at Crisis and Shelter was good experience, I was interested in something more focused on VAWG. Then I remembered West End Women and Girls (WEWAG). They had come into one of my Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) lectures to speak about their centre in the West End of Newcastle. We learned how their peer educators went into local schools and trained girls to become Domestic Violence (DV) Champions. Once the girls were trained, they would act as a listening ear and a line of support that anyone in their school who is experiencing abuse can turn to for help and signposting.
Anyone can experience and perpetrate abuse. However, it is women who disproportionately face abuse at the hands of their male partners¹¹-¹². Abuse is a form of gender-based violence, influenced by the gender inequality in our society¹. In a 2017 Women’s Aid survey, one third of young women said they had been in an abusive relationship. Over two thirds of young women had experienced one or more ‘red flag’ behaviours of abuse¹⁰. WEWAG’s goal of starting conversation of abusive relationships early is absolutely necessary, and very encouraging to me.
The DV Champion Training
I called up WEWAG, told them I remembered them from my lecture and asked if they could help me become a DV Champion. They got back to me, saying they were keen to bring the DV Champion training to Northumbria Uni. They asked if I would be interested in working with them. I emailed Ruth Lewis, my IPV lecturer, and started to generate interest. When I met WEWAG and Ruth to discuss our plans, I was surprised when WEWAG’s peer educators arrived. They were my age! In their early 20’s and relatable, clever and funny. These women would be training me and a group of students to become DV Champions. I couldn’t wait! The response to our advert was overwhelming. We were delighted that over 60 women willing to commit to becoming a DV Champion got in touch. Because of this interest, it is possible that another group of women will be trained later in the year. The positive vibes continued once the training started.
I’d never seen someone my age delivering a training session of any kind. I didn’t realise the importance of peer educators and the positives that come with having people your own age in the role, with vast knowledge of domestic abuse and available for support. 16 to 19-year olds are more likely to experience abuse than older people and the abuse is often equal in severity to abusive adult relationships⁷. Yet this age group are are less willing to confide in professionals and adults as they don’t trust them as much as their peers and fear the repercussions of disclosing to a grown-up⁴. Young people need to develop a rapport with professionals before disclosing abuse, and WEWAG recognise the increased likelihood and value that comes with having peer educators involved in their organisation.
The training was informative but also fun. We covered types of abuse, warning signs, the effects of abuse on survivors, the perpetrator, self-esteem, assertiveness, boundaries, disclosures, and sources of support. WEWAG made us feel at ease with ice-breakers. We began with sharing with the group two truths and a lie. We learned embarrassing stories from nights out, about a famous relative, weird talents and peculiar pet-hates. The ice-breakers could have been embarrassing, but the trainers took the lead, and it wasn’t long before we were laughing and relaxed as a group. All the activities were interactive and done a way that you could relate them to your own life. You could think, what would I do in this situation?
All of us on the training knew of the gender inequalities that exist today, but the training really refreshed the ‘girl power’ energy in us. We ended the first day by going around the group and saying what you love about being a girl. Programmes with the purpose to educate young people about sex and relationships have been found to be more effective when they explicitly address gender inequality¹³⁻¹⁴. We had been educated, but I think what I took away most from the training was the focus on empowerment and self-esteem.
WEWAG were 100% successful in igniting the self-love in me while being funny and relatable; they opened up about their lives and relationships (both healthy and not so healthy) and I thought how important this could be to someone who didn’t know what a healthy relationship was. Young people with limited knowledge around relationships are more prone to victimisation, as they sometimes don’t know the signs of abuse². We were all feminists and had a strong sense of what was right and wrong in intimate relationships; for someone who had never really learned about what is healthy, I’m confident that by the end of the training they would know what is acceptable and be left feeling like they could confide in WEWAG. Even when it came to complex questions like, is it ever okay for your partner to ask to look at your phone? WEWAG tackled the answers light-heartedly, relating it to their lives, so we could relate it to our own lives. In the end, the answer was always about freedom and respect.
The training generated thought provoking discussion and it was refreshing to be surrounded by like-minded women who had come together due to a shared drive to support other women. The aim was that, by the end of the three days, we would have learned about the gendered nature of domestic abuse, we would be confident in spotting warning signs and be able to assist and signpost anyone experiencing abuse to different support services, while creating a safe atmosphere. This was definitely achieved but across the days of training, in some ways it didn’t really feel like that’s what we were there for. We were laughing so much, felt so relaxed and were happy to learn, because we didn’t feel any judgement and were learning about each other, talking about shared experiences as well as all the knowledge required to be a DV Champion.
The training is complete and we are waiting for WEWAG’s formal graduation ceremony. We will then get our DV Champion information packs and will take on the role officially! Currently, we are trying to figure out how to advertise the support service to students around campus, while maintaining a high level of anonymity. Once this is up and running, anyone experiencing abuse or with any concerns will be able to contact one of the DV Champions or attend a drop-in for support and advice. Referrals will then be made to WEWAG so that the person seeking help doesn’t have to search for different organisations that will be able to help them.
The DV Champion training and the peer education programme at WEWAG manages to create a positive out of a negative. At University, where self-esteem can be low and misogyny is high, it’s more important than ever to educate young people on what is acceptable and healthy in a relationship, and be able to support any students that are experiencing abuse and asking for help. Northumbria is the first University where WEWAG has trained up a group of DV Champions, and I am confident we’ll be able to mirror the values of WEWAG and be successful in the role and successful in spreading the positivity and love.
Getting on the Career Ladder: Reflections on Volunteering
Another positive from the training is the career ‘doors’ that have been opened to me. Although at University you barely have a minute to spare, I would definitely recommend taking any volunteering or training opportunities you come across by the horns! I have managed to get my foot in the door through my volunteering and have built up a positive reputation for myself, as well as making contacts that were useful to me while at Uni (I interviewed Crisis and Shelter members of staff for my dissertation) and are even more useful now I’ve graduated. However, the thing that is most important and useful while looking for a job is the experience. If you’re like me and you want to work in a sector that will inevitably have vulnerable people with complex needs attached to it, then a degree by itself will not suffice. Real life experience is not something that can be faked or talked up on a CV and it is something that employers will be looking for.
Although I currently work evenings in a restaurant, I’m not worried that I should be in a grad job by now. I’m taking my sweet ol’ time! I still do volunteering and training through the daytime. Every day I learn more. I am dealing with different and more challenging cases, and have my own client list to support. I’m becoming more of an asset with more skills under my belt. Even if you’re not looking for a career working with vulnerable people, volunteering is a great way of making sure that you actually enjoy the work you’re doing (in the real world) and it sets you apart from everyone else in the UK with a degree, going for the same job as you are. You may have to sacrifice some of your free time and your social life, but it will be worth it 100%!
- Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, UN Women). (1992). General recommendations made by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Published online: UN Women. Seen in: Women’s Aid, 2019.
- Council of Europe (2011). Protecting Children from Sexual Violence: A Comprehensive Approach. Council of Europe. Available Online. Seen in: Houses of Parliament. (2018). Relationships and Sex Education. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available Online.
- Crisis Skylight Newcastle. (2019). Available Online.
- Crisma, M. Bascelli, E. Paci, D. & Romito, P. (2004). Adolescents Who Experienced Sexual Abuse: Fears, Needs and Impediments to Disclosure. Available Online.
- Halliday, E. (2019). North East Women are Most at Risk of Experiencing Domestic Abuse from a Partner. Available Online.
- Houses of Parliament. (2018). Relationships and Sex Education. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available Online.
- Safe Young Lives. (2019). Young People and Domestic Abuse. Available Online.
- Shelter North East – Newcastle. (2019). Available Online.
- West End Women and Girls Centre. (2019). Available Online.
- Women’s Aid. (2017). Women’s Aid Annual Survey. Available Online.
- Women’s Aid. (2019). What is Domestic Abuse?. Available Online.
- World Health Organisation (WHO). (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-Partner Sexual Violence. Available Online. Seen in: Houses of Parliament. (2018). Relationships and Sex Education. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available Online.
- Wolfe, D. Crooks, C. Jaffe, P. Chiodo, D. Hughes, R. Ellis, W. Stitt, L. & Donner, A. (2009). A School-Based Program to Prevent Adolescent Dating Violence: A Cluster Randomized Trial. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Available Online. Seen in: Houses of Parliament. (2018). Relationships and Sex Education. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available Online.
- Yakubovich, A. Stöckl, H. Murray, J. Melendez-Torres, G. Steinert, J. Glavin, C. & Humphreys, D. (2017). Prospective Risk and Protective Factors for Intimate Partner Violence Victimisation Among Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The Lancet. Available Online. Seen in: Houses of Parliament. (2018). Relationships and Sex Education. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available Online.