The challenges of domestic or sexual violence for ‘frontline workers’: developing training materials and educational resources

Miriam Davidpost by MIRIAM E. DAVID
Emeritus Professor, Institute of Education

‘Women’s refuges forced to shut down by funding crisis’ is a central headline in The Guardian (August 4 2014 p. 1) illustrating how violence against women is now on public agendas in dramatic ways. The accompanying article documents the growing crisis in funding for the refuges that have been created to deal with problems of sexual or domestic violence over the last several decades. There are photos of 4 young women, two with their babies, to illustrate the problem of domestic violence – young women killed in their homes by violent men, almost certainly their partners. Indeed, another headline screams: ‘It feels like we have gone back 30 years’ and with the bye-line ‘Domestic violence victims need support more than ever, say frontline workers!’ (The Guardian August 4, 2014, p.2).

The issue of gender-related violence (GRV) has become a public topic and on public agendas as a matter of some critical concern. But the question of how to prevent its frequent and devastating, often tragic and traumatic, occurrence remains a challenge, given the lack of consensus on how to define, let alone tackle the problem of intimate sexual and social relations. There is little public debate about how to provide the necessary support, and what that support should entail. Should it be preventative or merely intervening after the event with legal, financial and resource/residential solutions? If it were to be preventative how would one begin to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with these very ticklish relationships and educate or train professionals to work with both the victims and perpetrators of such violence?

Feminist political campaigning, over the last 30-40 years, has ensured that the question of what was once called domestic or sexual violence, and now more commonly known as gender-based or gender-related violence, is on the public agenda. And they have contributed, along with other anti-sexist, anti-homophobia, anti-bullying and anti-racist campaigners, to developing the theories and knowledge to address these issues. And yet a paradox remains: despite all this welcome knowledge and campaigning and headline news, there is little challenge to these fundamental and deep-seated problems of how to develop appropriate social and sexual relations for young people and future generations that do not entail violent encounters in ongoing relations.

Through our EU-funded Daphne project, GAP work: against gender-related violence we have been developing education and training for ‘frontline workers’ such as youth, community and social workers, health and education professionals. Our aim is to improve the way professionals who have everyday contact with a range of young people and children recognize GRV, intervene to challenge it (and the values which underpin it) and support and refer those individuals affected. We adopt a broad definition of GRV which problematizes ‘sexist, sexualizing or norm-driven bullying, harassment and violence whoever is targeted’.

Our project is based in England, Ireland, Italy and Spain working with the appropriate and relevant professionals in their diverse local contexts. We have developed materials about how to address the questions of the relationships between young people – boys and girls – in developing sexual and social relationships. We question traditional educational models that appear to maintain authoritarian roles and relations both in families and in other settings such as school or community. Our materials draw on a range of skills and the accumulated social evidence about the power relations between men and women and how they develop.

We have reached out to a range of professionals in a range of different contexts, although there are professional cultures, identities and norms that often limit the receptiveness or openness to GRV and how to use our materials. In England, we have found frustration at what teachers for example are able to do, despite their goodwill and wishes. The question of school governance and norms and the audit/accountability agenda is, as with statutory social workers, very inhibiting of the creative use of these materials. All are, indeed, constrained by funding and the instability of resources for imaginative and important projects such as these.

Our cascading resources, developed with professionals at our various training events, across countries and contexts could be invaluable for campaigning in the next year around issues of GRV and the broader issue of gender inequalities. They challenge all of us to think about what is essential to tackling deep-rooted power relations and dynamics and developing the necessary supports and resources for a better future for children and young people.