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Domestic violence: 16 days of activism

Image by Barbieistheone from Pixabay

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. In honour of this global campaign, we spoke with Councillor Janet Gardner who took time out of her very busy schedule working – which includes supporting the 16 Days of Action

Award winning domestic violence service

Councillor Janet Gardner, from the London Borough of Hillingdon, won the LGiU’s Cllr Award for Innovation and Service Transformation in 2019. She won for her fantastic work around domestic violence.

Cllr Gardner has been a vocal defender of domestic violence victims since 1994, when she was first elected. During her time as a councillor, she has established the Domestic Violence Forum, which elevated the political priority of the problem and transformed attitudes towards domestic violence.
Cllr Gardner’s sustained dedication to protecting domestic violence victims was greatly applauded by our panel of independent judges. They acknowledged the transformative effect she has had on attitudes towards this crime in Hillingdon, creating an environment in which victims feel able to approach the authorities. She led a major redesign of domestic violence services, all the more impressive given she was working from outside the council administration. She began work in this space at a time when it fell between the cracks in the public sector, but through her efforts she has made it a council priority.
We got her reaction on the LGiU Fortnightly podcast, and followed up with a few more questions.

Q: Can you describe what’s been achieved on the issue of domestic violence in Hillingdon

A: When I started in 1994 there was hardly anything in place for victims and what existed was not joined up. Over the years we have raised the profile of the whole subject so that almost everybody in the key agencies knows that DV is a priority in hillingdon. It is really difficult to measure what we have actually done by statistics but we have lots of anecdotal evidence that people have really been helped.

Being able to build an effective partnership between the statutory and voluntary agencies so that that we all work together has been one of the most important areas of this work. It was difficult at first, but it is based on mutual trust.

Q: You aren’t part of the administration in Hillingdon. How has working across party made it harder to achieve success? 

A: Some councillors in opposition have always refused to work with what they see as ‘the enemy’.But I have always taken the view that you have to put that sort of attitude aside when it comes to a life and death issue like DV. From the outset I was always prepared to work with Councillors from the ‘other side’ and have always been able to approach the Leader of the Council and my own group leader, (who is also my sub on the DV executive) whenever things were getting stuck and decisions were needed. Hillingdon’s leaders have been supportive throughout. The administration gives me a sum of money annually to be used specifically for DV cases, I don’t hold the money but I am able to authorise monies following requests from either the housing department or outside agencies, who need funds for essentials for DV victims fleeing a dangerous situation.

Q: What do you think we still need to achieve on the issue of DV?

A: There are so many unresolved issues it is incredibly difficult to know where to begin. Public perceptions of DV still need to be raised at every available opportunity. There are still far too many people who think that it is all right to give somebody a slap (usually the victim is a woman, but now more men are presenting as victims of both domestic violence and domestic abuse ). There is much more to be done to get a proper understanding of all aspects of domestic abuse (DA) and to get people to realise that it is not just about physical violence. We have still got enormous challenges in some of our minority ethnic communities because of the outdated sexist attitudes of some of the men and the refusal of some families to allow a victim to seek outside help because of fear of being shamed. Then of course there is the problem of how we educate and motivate younger generations so that we can live in hope that one day DV will be a thing of the past. We have staff that go into schools to explain to the pupils and the staff, what is DV & DA and the long lasting effect it can have on both individuals and families..

Q: What difference does it make to have effective DV services to people who have experienced DV?

A: All the difference in the world.

It could be a matter of life or death. More frequently it is about convincing victims that it does not always have to be like that and then trying to rebuild confidence and self-esteem so that they can move on to lead a normal life. It is this belief and determination that we will eventually eradicate DV that has kept me going.  I also tell the victims that I talk to that they need to be aware that the emotional effect of their experience will last for ever, and to watch out for triggers that could cause distressing flashbacks or ptsd, I believe that forewarned is forearmed.

Councils and domestic violence

Local government, of course, has a major role to play in supporting the victims of domestic violence and abuse and in raising awareness.

In England, a new legal duty was announced in the October Queen’s Speech to provide safe accommodation support as an amendment to the  Domestic Abuse Bill (see LGiU Members-only briefing on the bill) and was backed with some additional funding. Alongside safe housing, there are duties to assess the scale of domestic violence and abuse and lay out strategies for dealing with it.

In Australia, there is some experimentation with providing perpetrators with housing support, allowing victims to stay in the family home. This approach is not without some criticism, but given that domestic violence can lead to homelessness for victims it’s an approach that could have merit in some circumstances and could be a boon where the victim has no recourse to public funds due to immigration status.

Given that a significant minority of women (and some men, too)  – between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 – will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes, councils are likely to employ victims (and perpetrators) of domestic abuse. South Ayrshire Council in Scotland is believed to be the first council in Europe to give ‘safe leave’ to staff who are victims of domestic abuse.

In Scotland, the Improvement Service alongside NHS Scotland and the National Violence Against Women Network,  has issued a briefing note for elected members (link to a PDF), although most of it is relevant to elected members almost anywhere. It’s about creating a lens that lets you examine all policies for how it contributes to supporting victims of domestic violence and highlights it for the public health issue that it is.

Gender based violence and elections

Our work has shown that some women have found gender based abuse a barrier to serving as councillors, such as the findings of our research with the Fawcett Society in 2017, in which we surveyed councillors in England and Wales. One in ten reported that a fear of violence had been a barrier when standing for election; over a third (40%) said that harassment or abuse from the electorate hindered their campaign, rising to half (48%) among women; and one in five (19%) female councillors said sexist comments from the electorate had held them back during their campaign.

Our project #DispatchesfromtheDoorstep aims to shine a light on all forms of abuse during the general election campaign and as well as other un-democratic behaviours such as disinformation.

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