Creating Universal and Diverse Characters

Richy K. Chandler author of You Make Your Parents Super Happy! and When Are You Going to Get a Proper Job? talks through the challenges that come with creating diverse characters in stories, and why it is so important to do.

When I was working on You Make Your Parents Super Happy! (my recent picture book for children whose parents have separated but still both want to be part of their child’s life), I was conscious of keeping the gender and race of all characters ambiguous. While the book deals with a very specific situation, I hope that the universality of the characters’ appearance means that as many children and families as possible can see themselves as the beings found within the pages. This could be two dads, a mum and a dad, two mums and a multitude of relationships also representing the full range of cultures and ethnic back grounds that exist.diverse charactersSimilarly, with Lucy the Octopus, my webcomic that looks at the effects of bullying and bigotry (hopefully in a humorous and super cute way), I wanted to make the lead character as universally relatable as possible. The strip touches on racism, homophobia and not fitting into gender stereotypes but it’s never made clear exactly why Lucy, the heroine, is so unliked. Lots of readers have told me that they see part of themselves in Lucy, and not always for the same reasons. I’m usually both happy that the character is relatable and saddened for the readers to have gone through similar horrible experiences. 
diverse characters
As a writer who has no desire to create comics starring myself (hats off to those brave enough to make candid, graphic autobiographies), there are other good reasons for making characters more universal.  With Lucy the Octopus, I wanted to talk about experiences of feeling picked on and ostracised in my own school years, but I’d rather avoid the spotlight being on myself. Making Lucy a girl and an octopus certainly did that job and frees me up to wildly exaggerate my own experiences within her fantastical world. For example, my own family were not terrible to me like Lucy’s are (except that year I got Scrabble for my birthday instead of the Crossbows and Catapults game I’d wished for, but I’m a survivor and made it through that bleak day). Continue reading

EXTRACT – You Make Your Parents Super Happy!: A book about parents separating

You Make Your Parents Super Happy!

‘Hey! I think you should know that there is nothing your parents are more proud of… than YOU!’

You Make Your Parents Super Happy!, written and illustrated by Richy K Chandler, is a comforting graphic story that helps children whose parents are separating feel better. The book gently explains why some parents have to live in different places, and reminds the child how special they are to both parents, reassuring them that both parents will keep looking after them, and love them just as before.

Getting to the heart of what children need to hear in what can be a confusing time, the story lets your child know that they are loved and safe, and that this will not change. Ideal for children aged 3-7.

Click the link below to get a feel for the book.

Click here to read an extract from You Make Your Parents Super Happy!

You Make Your Parents Super Happy!

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Your partner tells you that they’re trans. What do you do?

 Finding Out Your Partner Is Trans

Finding out that your partner is trans can be quite confusing for people, and the responses can vary greatly depending on loads of different factors. The first factor is how far into the relationship you discover this.

For people who know their partner is trans before they get together, managing transition and their identity as a partner of a trans person can be easier.

“I found out when my wife and I got together. She was still living as a man and spent most of the evening trying to convince me that her being trans was a reason for us to not be together. She felt that being trans meant that she could never be in a successful relationship because her transness would always get in the way. I, of course, spent most of the evening convincing her that she was worthy of love and that we could make it work together. To be completely honest, I had no idea what being trans meant, other than being a huge fan of the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was a teenager (I now recognise how massively problematic Rocky Horror is for many people). I sometimes think that it was this fact, asserting that trans people deserve love just like everyone else without any idea what the practicalities would be, that kept us together. No matter how hard things got, no matter what we went through, it always came back down to the fact that she is deserving of love, and I took it upon myself to prove to her that I was right about that.” (Jo)

Continue reading

Developing essential skills for mediating across dispute contexts and cultures – An Interview with Tony Whatling

Tony Whatling is the author of the new book, Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.  With over 25 years’ experience of mediation practice, he has published widely on the subject of mediation and is a professional practice consultant to a number of mediation services. He has designed and delivered training to over 1,000 Muslim mediators in the UK, Pakistan, India, USA, Canada, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Portugal, Syria and Afghanistan.

In this interview, Tony shares his experiences of mediating within different contexts and cultures, and explains why there is the need for a comprehensive guide to the skills and strategies in mediation.

You have worked in the field of mediation for over 20 years – what led you to become a mediator?

From the late 1960’s, I had a professional background in social sciences, social work practice, management and education, always with a part-time involvement in family therapy practice, throughout those different roles. As a tutor and head of a university department of social work education, I had always believed that, to maintain credibility, academics should not be detached from practice, so looked for a part-time role locally.

At that time family mediation was beginning to evolve in the UK, and in 1984 a mediation service opened in the city and offered the first ever national training in family mediation. I was subsequently appointed and within two years became one of a small team of trainers to deliver training across the UK in the not-for-profit sector. I left the university some 18 years ago to become a self-employed trainer, and expanded my experience so as to also offer training in community/neighbour, health care complaints, victim/offender and workplace mediation contexts.

Why was it important to write a book about mediation skills?

Despite the substantial growth in literature related to mediation, conciliation, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), it is surprising that a book which offers a straightforward, comprehensive handbook of mediator skills and strategies has not so far been written. Whilst referring to some skills, books with titles referring to ‘mediation skills’ more commonly cover theories about conflict, legal issues, and how to manage the mediation process and its stages, rather than the essential core skills and strategies used by practitioners. My decision to write the book was also heavily influenced by constant requests to do so from the very many people I have trained over the past two decades.

Can you give us some examples of skills that mediators routinely employ? Mediation is practised in many different kinds of settings – are these skills employed universally?

The good news for trainee mediators is that the key skills that mediators use are effectively the same as those used by councillors, therapists, managers, and HR staff – indeed anyone involved in what can be termed ‘people-working’ professions. They are essentially also what most people have developed as good quality interpersonal communication skills for everyday life: for example, active listening with understanding, paraphrasing, summarising, clarifying, empathising and using a range of different forms of questioning. The key difference is that mediators are using such skills for different outcome objectives than, say, a therapist, namely in helping disputants negotiate agreements and mutually acceptable settlements. Again, the good news is that these skills are entirely appropriate across all dispute resolution contexts. The procedural steps employed by a mediator will differ depending on the conflict at hand – for example, a spousal dispute versus a commercial or workplace dispute – but the skills are universal.

You make the distinction in the book between skills and strategies – tell us about this.

Typical dictionary definitions describe a skill as ‘the ability to do something well’ or ‘expertise or dexterity’, whereas a strategy is commonly defined as ‘a plan designed to achieve a particular long-term aim’.

Professionals firstly need to practice and develop specific core mediation skills in order to be able to apply them with a particular outcome in mind.

It is hard to conceive of any skill being used by a mediator that will not have some degree of either minor or major strategic effect. For example, the mediator will use the skill of active listening so that they fully understand the client, but also to demonstrate an interest in them as a person. In this scenario, the client hopefully perceives the mediator as both skilful and interested in them as a person. This in turn will also help towards developing trust in the mediator, and indeed the mediation process itself as a method of resolving the dispute. I give many more examples in the book of these core mediation skills and how they are applied strategically towards helping the parties involved to move through the mediation process. Purposefulness and intentionality therefore are the hallmarks of skilled practice.

You run skills training throughout the UK, but also around the world. Are there differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures?

There are significant differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures, and the most significant differences relate to the Western versus non-Western cultural context. Generally speaking, in Western, individualist cultures, conflict is regarded as an inevitable fact of everyday life and, in many cases, even as a necessary indicator of a need for improvement – for example, in unsatisfactory work-place relationships or with consumer products. Consequently, mediation has come to be regarded as a way to get things out into the open and on the table so as to solve problems and negotiate mutually acceptable settlements and agreements, usually with the help of impartial, trained mediators who are not normally known to the parties in dispute.

By contrast, in many non-Western, communitarian cultures, conflict is generally regarded as abhorrent, a threat to community cohesion and a matter of individual, family and community failings, and is therefore something to avoid, suppress or smooth over. Mediation in this context tends to be conducted by known and respected senior members of the community. Conflict management and negotiations are typically much less direct, take longer and may involve many more members of the extended family and community stake holders – usually with a strong emphasis on reconciliation and a ‘bandaging of the wounds’. Where such internal processes are unsuccessful, arbitration is historically more commonplace and again is provided by respected community and faith elders. Settlements determined by such processes tend to accepted by all concerned, regardless of who wins or loses, as an indication of the historical respect for the authority of the arbitrator.

What has been the most challenging piece of work that you have done which involved drawing upon all of your skills as a mediator?

Two particular examples stand out as the most challenging. The first was a family mediation involving a divorcing couple where the wife was terminally ill, with possibly weeks or at best a few months to live. She expressed very considerable anger with the surgeons, who had at initially thought that surgery had been successful – only to discover later that her illness had spread extensively. She was also still very angry with her husband who had left her for another woman prior to her diagnosis. We achieved little other than some plans for the next few weeks, as we had to end the meeting when her emotional and physical condition deteriorated to the point where she could no longer communicate effectively. I still believe that it was right to respect her wish to mediate. At an intellectual level it made sense, and yet emotionally – given the catastrophic losses that this woman faced: marriage, children and life itself – how could anyone be expected to cope with negotiating arrangements for a time when they are no longer here?

The other situation involved a couple in Syria and matters of family honour. Two members of the wife’s family had not only defrauded her husband of a substantial amount of money through business dealings, but had maligned his character within the close-knit local community. It would not be appropriate to give details, but after some eight years the matter had gone from bad to worse, despite many attempts at mediation and reconciliation. Given the family connections and long running emotional stress, the dispute now threatened the husband’s long-standing marriage, as well as his career as a very successful business man and academic. My female Muslim co-worker and I worked with the husband and wife for several hours, through intense heat and inadequate air-conditioning, on the day we were due to leave Syria after delivering a training programme. By the end, we felt that we had gone some way to helping to reconcile the marriage and the couple both expressed sincere gratitude, in particular for the fact that we had been the first people not to tell the husband to ‘forgive and forget’ or to get on with his life for the sake of his family, his children and community cohesion. We also helped to begin to formulate a plan in which a mutually trusted relative from the wife’s family might be sufficiently trusted on both sides, to convey an apology from her father to her husband – an option that would potentially enable both families to save face. The husband was fully prepared to write off the substantial financial loss, but had become obsessed – to the point of potentially serious mental and physical ill heath – with the damage done to his reputation as an honourable man. This situation brought home to me vividly just how very serious matters of shame and honour are in certain non-Western, communitarian cultures. When at one stage I asked the husband what he would do if an apology was not forthcoming, he thought long and hard before saying, ‘Then I will have only one remaining option, which is to kill them.’ He looked and sounded very serious.

I like to believe that he was sufficiently intelligent and aware of the legal consequences of such actions enough to not carry out that threat, and yet I was left in no doubt of the intensity of his emotions and beliefs. Whilst in many respects he had outwardly become very Westernised, his cultural values regarding family honour were still deeply embedded in his psyche. As someone brought up in a Western culture, I can potentially understand and indeed empathise with his wish to avoid dishonour and shame, and yet, personally upsetting as it might be, the actions I might resort to are incomparable across our different cultural worlds.

To return to your original question, such disputes inevitably test a mediator’s skills to the limit. They are also a powerful reminder of what I refer to in some detail in the book, namely that they should never be applied outside of a framework of appropriate professional values, attitudes and cultural sensitivity and awareness. Skills, strategies and professional practice can never be value-free.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Mediation Matters: Tony Whatling on Training Muslim Mediators in Afghanistan

A personal perspective from Tony Whatling, mediation consultant and trainer, and author of Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.

Kabul revisited

The flight from Dubai to Afghanistan had taken us over the breathtaking panorama of the majestic snow-capped peaks and deep dark valleys of the Central Highland mountain range, which cover over 160,000 square miles.

It was late October 2010 and as we touched down at Kabul airport I reflected on my last training visit in 2004 and wondered what changes had taken place over that time. The excitement of my return to this wonderful country had been overshadowed by the news that, on that same morning, on the outskirts of Kabul a suicide bomber had taken the lives of thirteen NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and eight civilians.

Within three weeks of that dreadful event, many more innocent citizens – men, women and children – were slaughtered by more bombs as they celebrated the joy and excitement of the festival Eid Mubarak, in central Kabul.

Compared to 2004, it was sad to see that Kabul had become a city under siege. Every building of any importance was now hidden from sight and fortified with 20-foot high concrete walls, topped with razor wire. Getting into the hotel from the road took around 10-20 minutes every day as each steel barrier, followed by massive steel gates, allowed only one car at a time to pass through and be examined. They checked underneath the car, the boot and the engine bay. Once out of the car, bags were searched and checked by sniffer dogs before being put through airport-style scanners. All hotel uniformed guards carried machine guns at the ready with – rather concerningly – twitching fingers. Only main roads were surfaced, but all were inches deep in dust. There were many more cars than last time and driving was all based on a ‘he who dares, wins’ game of bluff and counter-bluff, with a terrifying lack of regard for the risks involved or for the lives of pedestrians attempting to cross the road.

It was all a stark reminder that, whether the disputes were between warring spouses, angry neighbours, work colleagues or nations, such conflicts would never be resolved by violence. Referring to a much-respected retired general, Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan wrote: ‘Like most Afghans, he knew that the only answer was reconciliation between all the parties to the conflict. There had to be a new political settlement in which the Taliban, and the tribes and views they represented, were included, not excluded. Trying to defeat the Taliban by military force would never produce lasting peace.’*

Mediation for the people by the people

Over the past ten years, I have had the great pleasure and privilege of delivering a total of twenty programmes of family and community mediation training in eleven different countries, including Pakistan, India, Syria, Kenya, Portugal, the USA, UK, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, and Afghanistan.

The training programmes are arranged by one particular Muslim group, which has faith communities in some 23 different countries worldwide. Most of those communities have now established dispute resolution teams, staffed by volunteer-trained mediators who are available to deal with disputes referred from within their particular local faith community group.

And so it was that I was returning to Kabul to train the latest group of carefully selected, newly appointed volunteer mediators from various districts in Afghanistan where this particular faith group has long-established communities.

Photo: Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.

Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.

For many of the 50 or so trainees, the learning challenges they faced were compounded by the physical discomfort of some 3-4 days walking, apart from the occasional luxury of a donkey ride to get to the training venue in Kabul. Much of their route – for example, from the northern mountainous Hindu Kush regions of Badakhshan – consists of little more than rough tracks. Some told of how the path had become closed behind them by ice and snow. Their safe return to loved ones and businesses was, as they put it with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, ‘now in the hands of Allah’.

For these people, who had lived through centuries of peaceful conflict resolution faith teachings combined with a tradition of voluntary service to their community, the personal risks involved were far outweighed by an awareness of the urgent need to connect faith traditions with contemporary dispute resolution practice.

New learning inevitably generates complex and challenging questions

One of the great pleasures of training such groups is the strong level of commitment, attention, and the high value which they attribute to any form of education and training. As a result, their acquisition of knowledge and skills tends to be much accelerated in comparison to their Western counterparts. This is all the more surprising since every sentence has to be translated, in this instance into Farsi.

Sadly, male trainees still outnumber women – one consequence of which is that men have to assume the role of women in role-play. This is always a source of great amusement within a group. In what other circumstances would you find a high-ranking officer from the department of counter-terrorism, a former mayor, a serving army general, judges and farmers, sitting cross-legged on the floor, acting out the role of a distressed divorcing wife?

The influence of the trainer in empowering trainees to stretch their boundaries never ceases to amaze me. To their credit, during the role-play debrief, these men frequently comment about the eye-opening insights they gained from this gender shift experience.

Here in Afghanistan, the training and learning challenges are complex, as participants struggle to make sense not only of the knowledge and skills they are gaining, but of the application of these to their non-Western culture and faith traditions.

It is very apparent that they are convinced by, excited about and wanting to apply these new ideas and practices. Yet at the same time there is an inevitable uncertainty and insecurity about the extent to which such practices will be acceptable within their more remote regional communities.

Evidence of this internal struggle becomes clear from the nature of the questions from – and often heated debates between – members of the group. Constant requests for help and advice are made about how to deal with the anticipated resistance to such ‘new ways’ being imported from the West.

This has been a common experience and preoccupation in the training of other groups for example in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Syria and, more recently with a group from Iran, where long-standing cultural traditions of dispute resolution are far more akin to arbitration.

In the more remote regions of these countries, disputes are traditionally referred to wise community leaders and/or groups of respected elders, who have the absolute authority to hear the case and determine the settlement. Regardless of the opinions of the winners or losers of this informal justice system, the judgement will be accepted and respected by all concerned. Consequently, introducing contemporary and non-authoritarian dispute resolution, by party empowerment and negotiation, challenges the authority of the tradition and risks a lack of respect for the authority, and therefore the status of mediators, regardless of Western contemporary beliefs in its efficacy.

Any response to such challenging questions must demonstrate a good level of understanding on the part of the trainer, together with all due respect for cultural and sub-cultural differences and traditions.

Whilst the questions may relate to the anticipated resistance in potential mediation clients, the underlying or ‘meta’ questions are also a reminder that the trainee, too, is a product of that same cultural environment.

The response of a trainer to the trainee’s uncertainty and doubts can be seen as a mirror image that reflects the doubts and uncertainties that clients may well bring to them as mediators. Trainers and mediators alike, on perceiving such doubts, must have the professional maturity to be able to steer into such confusion. Instead of trying to avoid it, they should share responsibility for their part in such uncertainty, rather than regarding it as the client’s problem. In other words, expressed or perceived doubts from trainees or clients should be encouraged, heard, understood and respected as normal at times of uncertainty and disequilibrium.

Is mediation an ‘idea whose time has come’ for Afghanistan?

Having referred earlier to the wise words of the former British Ambassador, I woke today to the news that, on the occasion of President Karzai’s meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister in London, it was announced that talks had now officially started between mediators and representatives of the Taliban.

My work in Afghanistan is related to one small Muslim faith community that is located within many larger and more complex historical faith, cultural and political systems. The work is a very minor contribution compared to the wider picture in this war-torn country. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt now that mediation and negotiated peace settlements are the only viable alternative, as for example we have witnessed in countries like South Africa. In such entrenched conflicts, we are dealing with highly complex and long-standing disputes involving deeply held values and principles.

When compared to disputes over substantive issues such as regional boundaries, electoral systems, or numbers of weapons, negotiated settlements will never be achieved by one side changing its position or values. Whilst we may all change and adapt our values as we go through life, we tend not to do that when in dispute. That is a time to stand up for them at all costs, regardless of risk to life and limb. The only way to achieve a resolution to such values disputes is when each side eventually comes to recognise the right of the other side to exist as fellow human beings – albeit having entirely different cultural and faith traditions, values and beliefs. Once that position is established, the respective factions can come together to negotiate practical measures by which they can learn to live side-by-side, regardless of their value differences – as is now happening with the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Such major international conflicts will not be concluded easily or swiftly, just because peace agreements are signed. In the cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland we may be facing decades of transition and yet, it would seem that once the tipping point is reached, despite attempts by minority groups to disrupt the accord, it is unlikely to revert to former states of all-out warfare.

Despite the marked differences between the advances of one minority Muslim group that I have had the privilege of working with, compared to the enormity of conflict in Afghanistan as a whole, the good news is that the skills and techniques that mediators bring are precisely the same.

Obviously very different procedural steps are needed when we compare spousal disputes with workplace, or commercial contexts with complex multinational conflicts. Nevertheless, the skills and processes of mediation are universal. So too are the essential principals that underpin the practice, such as voluntary participation, demonstrable impartiality as to outcome, joint party empowerment, confidentiality and fairness etc. – all of which are explored in more detail in the forthcoming book, Mediation Skills and Strategies.

Political leaders, community elected representatives and diplomats will inevitably take centre stage in such negotiations. Nevertheless we can only hope that they have the wisdom to ensure that highly-skilled, trained and respected mediators are ’embedded’ at every stage of the process. They must be regarded as integral to the process throughout. Their values, skills and strategies are substantially different from the key stakeholders – and should be respected as such.

My personal view, from experience over the past decade, is that, in terms of cultural credibility, such mediators should ideally be recruited from within the Afghan community and culture rather than imported from the West. It is likely that training will need to be imported initially but it must to be seen to be culturally sensitive to substantial differences between Western Individualist and non-Western Communitarian cultural attitudes to conflict and dispute resolution.

Tony Whatling
January 2012

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

*Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (Harper Press 2011), 352pp.

Hilary Abrahams looks at long-term outcomes of survivors of domestic violence

Hilary Abrahams is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Violence Against Women Research Group at the University of Bristol. She has worked extensively on the support needs and service provision for families where domestic violence is an issue, including a major research project evaluating the housing and support schemes funded by the Safer Communities Supported Housing Fund. Here, Hilary answers some questions about her new book, Rebuilding Lives after Domestic Violence: Understanding Long-Term Outcomes, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Yours is the first study in 30 years to follow women from the refuge into their new lives, and to cover such an extended period. Why is it important to look at long term outcomes, and why do you think it hasn’t been done before?

Domestic violence and abuse can devastate the lives of those who experience it; life becomes unsafe and unpredictable, social contact is lost and confidence and self esteem disappear. And in taking the decision to leave and start again, there are many other practical and emotional problems to face – building up a home, regaining control over their lives and the loss of a close relationship, however dangerous it had become. None of this is easy – it takes a long time to rebuild a life.

Refuges provide an essential breathing space for women to recover from the initial impact of leaving and receive support as they prepare to move on. But support needs to continue to be available within the context of their new lives as they try out new ways of being and learn to live independently. As one of them said to me, ‘It’s not just in the refuge, it’s a few years down the line’. Looking at how women adjust to life after leaving an abusive relationship, the support they want and the obstacles they face, can assist in the provision of effective and appropriate services to help women to reintegrate into the community and, as many of the women in the book are doing, make a valuable contribution to society.

In the early days of refuges, the priority was the provision of emergency accommodation for women and children, and research was focused on showing why this was so desperately needed and on raising public awareness of domestic violence. It was always accepted within the refuge movement that most women would need some form of support after leaving the refuge, but with scarce resources, help had to be targeted to where it was most needed. Emergency accommodation is still essential and refuge provision and women-only services are still under funded, under provided and under threat. But there has been a more general recognition of the value of services for women within the community and over a longer period, and growth in the provision of these services. Research is now broadening its approach to look at these wider areas of activity and I see this as a natural progression which builds on the work of earlier researchers.

How did you come to meet the women featured in the book, and how did you keep in touch with them? How has the long scope of your study benefited them?

Back in 2000/02, I talked to women living in three refuges run by members of the Womens Aid Federation of England and a few years later I was part of a major study carried out for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) which talked to women during a stay in a refuge and soon after they were re-housed. Contact with women was made through the workers in the refuges and safe houses involved. Many of the women, when they talked to me about their hopes for the future, suggested that I came back and saw them again in a few years time to see how they were getting on. So I then specifically asked all of them for their permission to contact them again, if I was able to get funding to run another research project. Consequently, when The British Academy granted me funding, I already had a list of possible respondents.  

I did not keep in touch directly with the women for a number of reasons – it could raise false expectations if I was unable to get funding, it could be seen as exploitative or intrusive and, most importantly, it could have put their lives in danger if they were back with their abuser or had a further abusive relationship. But the Centre where I am based at Bristol University (Centre for Gender and Violence Research) has evolved out of a group primarily concerned with domestic violence and has a long and proud tradition of activism and involvement with the women’s movement. It was natural, therefore, for me to retain links with all the refuge groups I had worked with, updating them on my research and forwarding any information I felt could be of use to them.

When I found that I had funding to carry out the research, I was able to go back to each of the refuges I had worked with and work with them to see who it might be safe to contact.

The women who responded to my letter were very clear about why they had chosen to reply and what they saw as the benefits to them of taking part. They saw our meetings as giving them an opportunity to reflect on their individual journeys: for most, it became a celebration of their new lives and achievements with someone who had met them at a low point in their lives and knew just how far they had come. Equally important was the realisation that their experiences, thoughts and opinions were worth listening to and could be used to help other women.  Because they had met me before, they trusted me to bear accurate witness to what they wanted to say and the long-term nature of the project meant that they were able to talk not only about their time in the refuge and what this had meant to them, but about the long-term effects of abuse and the struggles and dilemmas they had faced in rebuilding their lives.

What did you find were some of the more enduring effects of domestic violence for these women?

For some women, the physical effects of abuse – deformed bones, deep scars, constant pain – will never leave them and the mental scars are no less damaging and long lasting. But, for most of the women, physical and emotional health had improved rapidly once they were away from the abusive situation and there was a reduction in the coping strategies and behaviours they had used to numb the mental and physical pain of the abuse. There were still times when sadness and depression were evident and women talked of a diffused sense of fear and anxiety which was always there in the background of their lives. Probably the most enduring consequence of the abuse was the lack of trust which resulted in a wary approach to individuals and agencies.  When love and trust have once been betrayed, it is extremely difficult to place faith in others or, indeed, in yourself, when you seem to have got it so wrong before.  This makes it hard to build new relationships within the community and especially to find the courage to commit to another intimate relationship.

What were some of the factors that facilitated their successful transition to independent living?

Maslow argues that human beings look for certain things in their lives, over and above the need to sustain life.  They look for safety, to link to others and to feel a sense of confidence and self-worth. Domestic violence destroys all of this and a successful transition to independent living requires this structure to be reinstated. Women need to regain a sense of safety, rebuild links to others and regain self-esteem and confidence. For many of them, refuges are the places where this regeneration can start; they offer safety, a sense of community and the sort of support that can grow self worth and confidence and bridge the space between leaving the abuse and independent living. And it is important to say that women felt very strongly that these services needed to be provided by women, in women-only spaces. 

In moving back into the community, the same factors gave the key to making a successful transition. Firstly, safe, appropriate housing ‘a place of my own’, then practical and emotional support while they settled in and gained confidence in their abilities. This needed to be there for them in the long term, although at a much lower intensity. And when these two factors were in place, the third necessity was to build long term relationships within the new community.

In the book, you talk about leaving a domestic violence situation as a ‘process’. What do you mean by that?

Taking the decision to leave an abusive relationship is a complex one, involving considerations of risk and safety, the availability of resources and the gains and losses involved. And the situation is made even more difficult by the effect domestic violence has had on confidence and self-esteem. Some women leave temporarily, to give themselves a respite from the abuse; others may still be hopeful that the relationship may work and leaving may provide the shock needed to improve the situation.  These women may need to leave and return a number of times before they are finally ready to move on. Some may return because of the financial and social difficulties they see facing them, but leave again at a later date. For all of these women, the process of leaving may provide space to reflect on the relationship and her needs and gradually increase her confidence in her ability to live independently.

For some of the women I met, leaving had been a ‘once and for all’ action, driven by anger, or fear of imminent death. Others had experienced this ‘process’ of leaving and returning until they felt they were ready to finally leave. They valued the way support had continued to be available to them and that workers had not ’given up’ on them because they had returned to their abusers.

The message of your book is one of hope. What positive lessons can be derived for those working in support services? For other victims of domestic violence?

I think there is one clear message both for service providers and women who experience domestic violence and abuse – don’t give up! Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy, neat, simple, or straightforward, but with courage, determination and appropriate support, new and better lives, free from violence, can be built and maintained.    

At the end of our last meeting, I asked all the women if there was a message that they would like to send to other women who were experiencing domestic violence.  Their responses, intensely personal and deeply moving, showed how they had moved on in their lives, established new non violent relationships and were now able to reach out to offer hope and encouragement to other women who were suffering as they had done in the past.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.