I’m in the process of making a series of short films on issues that are pressing, and often life-threatening, but tend to be dismissed, undervalued and underfunded. The first film ‘Session One: Abortion’ has been released and gained a place in the top ten of the film competition ‘Eye Want Change’. The second film ‘Session Two: Domestic Abuse’ is under way; interviews are being conducted with a lawyer, an IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advisor), charity workers, activists, survivors and a psychologist, who you will hear from today in a transcribed interview.
As a filmmaker, I’m much more interested in the content than the aesthetic of a film. I’m interested in prioritising the voice of the subject especially when they have been dampened, ridiculed and ignored. The interviews are squeezed into busy schedules, the subjects often sacrificing an hour of their weekend or lunch break to talk to me in a crowded train station. I am consistently amazed by the women who have given so much to someone they don’t know for the benefit of thousands of women suffering without a voice. One woman even drove from London to Brighton on a Saturday after just one email to be interviewed for my first film. In a way, these films are my love letter to all the passionate, selfless people working in the women’s services doing all they can to better the lives of women in fear. You can hear from one of these women, psychologist extraordinaire Roxane Agnew-Davies who helped set up the National Domestic Violence Helpline, has championed many leading programmes to treat domestic abuse survivors’ effectively and who has been described by Refuge’s Chief Executive Sandra Horley as ‘fast developing and strengthening the psychological services we provide to women’. Enjoy!
Lauren: So, in your career so far, you have worked in the NHS mental health departments for 15 years, been a refuge manager for the charity Refuge, become Head of Psychological Services at Refuge, have co-authored a book ‘Domestic Violence and Mental Health’ and you are an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. You are also the Director of Domestic Violence Training LTD.
I found out more myself about domestic violence training and what goes along with it because I was on a first-aid course with a refuge worker from Solace. They’ve now made it mandatory that their workers have to do Paediatric First Aid courses because there are so many children that live in the refuges. Which is really scary that they didn’t have that before!
Roxane: Oh, do you know in 2000, just after I joined Refuge, I managed half a dozen refuges and Refuge was pretty unique across the country for having children’s workers. Within one of the refuges that I was managing, there were 15 women 30 kids and no playroom. The average life of the curtains was about five minutes because it was the only thing to swing on! It has massively changed, the whole culture, from thinking that children were like appendages or suitcases that women brought with them but to be recognised as traumatised individuals in their own right who really needed support and the opportunity to learn and play and recover so that we change it for the next generation.
Lauren: From what I’ve heard from people who I’ve known who has gone through domestic violence, or from reading accounts, is that the psychological effects of coercive behaviour is actually more effective than the physical side of the abuse, and maybe more long term as well. That seems to be really consistent throughout everyone’s accounts. That was really clear in Sandra Horley’s [Chief Executive of Refuge] book ‘Power and Control’ where it even gets to a point where women who aren’t being physically abused but just mentally abused say ‘I just got to the point where I wish he would hurt me physically so I could show someone a scar or a bruise and it would be something tangible that people would believe’. If it’s just psychological then there’s a tendency for society to dismiss it.
Roxane: Many women have said to me ‘the bruises heal, it’s the mind games and the way I feel inside that’s so hard to get over’ and that’s one of the reasons why I talk about domestic violence, or indeed intimate terrorism, because I think people started moving from talking about domestic violence to talking about domestic abuse because they wanted to recognise the power of that coercive control or the psychological effects. In fact, in my view, abuse sounds a bit softer or not so aggressive as violence so I deliberately use the terms domestic violence or intimate terrorism because I want to upgrade the force and the power and the damage of coercive control, or deprivation of movement, social isolation – that psychological abuse which is much more damaging in the long-term. That combination of psychological abuse and physical, or indeed sexual, violence lasts for years.
Lauren: The phrase ‘intimate terrorism’ – was that coined by you?
Roxane: No, it’s an American term, and I think it’s very powerful in that it conveys the asymmetry of power. I think women really readily identify with the idea of being held hostage and in the work that has been done in the mental health field around post-traumatic stress and the impacts of being held hostage, we have a lot of learning that translates into the domestic violence, or sexual violence, sector.
Lauren: 90% of the victims of domestic abuse incidences are women. That gives us a clue that domestic abuse is based on gendered roles in society, as least partially.
Roxane: Well, one of the reasons that the Home Office is not on my Christmas card list is that when the statistics come out that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence at some point in their life, and 1 in 6 men experience domestic violence at some point in his life, it sounds roughly comparable. But if we look at the incident prevalence then over 90% of incidents are perpetrated by men against women. It is clearly gender-biased and there is a failure in our justice system – really, when more than half the women who are killed die because of domestic violence – to address it as a serious crime which should be driving the way we think about our justice system. It is a challenge for some of the workers I know who are now supporting women in prison but who have knowledge of many abusive perpetrators being given either suspended sentences or light sentences but have committed serious crimes against women. These workers are now working in prisons where women who have been victims of extensive domestic or sexual violence are given much longer sentences for shop lifting or relatively petty crimes and that injustice is really hard for workers who have been on both sides of the fence…However, I keep myself cheered up by having recognised that over the 17 years I’ve been specialising in this field we now have a special law around domestic violence, we have a special law around stalking, people are now being charged with coercive control. The tide of the justice system has been changing and we have specialist domestic violence courts where judges have specialist training to understand that and, in my own work as an expert witness, I am able to help judges understand some of the dynamics of domestic violence and why victims might behave in the way they do. Then there is hope for change.
Lauren: I wonder what you think from a psychological point of view what the use of the arts can be in prevention and what you think we should be focusing on?
Roxane: I think the use of arts and theatre is wonderful, especially for children. Children learn through play and using theatre or art to help them express their feelings or their attitudes, or indeed their distress if they’ve experienced domestic violence, is a really powerful way to help. It’s purity and simplicity, and in doing that work with children in art or in theatre it’s changing a generation and that’s the only way we’re going to stop domestic violence.
Lauren: What do you think the best direction is for the future? Do you think it’s a mixture of direct action and inside government work? It’s a big question!
Roxane: It is a tragedy how austerity has punished women, not the banks, and cut more than half of the services. I am involved in yet another service of really high quality, of four women, that’s really being decimated by the cuts. But I’m sometimes cheered up by women who have been in this field for 40 years and say ‘we can go back to baking cakes if we need to’, that this is an unstoppable force now, when we know it is not possible not to know anymore. This too will pass. I remember those lights like little beacons all over the country and it’ll grow. I remember that as domestic violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage become recognised we’ll have the power together to change our society.