one thousand words

one thousand words

Photographs show us snapshots of lives and experiences but they can also mislead, misinform and show versions of a story that we wouldn’t always recognise. Most photos that try to portray domestic abuse do the latter.

They tell us only young, white, slim, beautiful women experience abuse and that their abuser is physically violent, broadly built: a brutish modern day neanderthal. They say victims of abuse are weak, cowardly and passive.

But survivors of domestic abuse, such as Lilly*, tell a very different story: “There were small but definite acts of resistance,” she says. “You can still be a strong woman in an abusive situation. In a way you fight it every day of your life when you are in it.”

When we speak about violence against women our society tends to equate being a victim with being weak in a way that we do not with other crimes. Photos of domestic abuse reinforce this perception: a woman is shown cowering, helpless, head in her hands as a clenched, tattooed fist looms over her. She is stripped of her agency as we judge her for not leaving her abuser, and assure ourselves we would act differently if we were ever in that situation. Believe it or not, most survivors of domestic abuse would have thought the same.

The continued misrepresentation of domestic abuse as an entirely physical phenomenon – as black eyes, tears or broken bones – stops women from reporting and seeking support for domestic abuse.

For many years women’s organisations have supported women who have lived through years of emotional, sexual and financial abuse, who still question the validity of their experience on the basis that their abuser never raised his fist. We also know from survivors that the psychological trauma inflicted by abusers, the control, humiliation and degradation, often stays with them for far longer than physical pain.

Abusers are not simply white, working class men with an alcohol problem, and they certainly don’t need to be physically violent to try to break their victim.

“If photographs always show hitting or bruises it means that men who don’t hit absolve themselves of the label abuser because they don’t leave bruises,” says Mariama, a survivor of abuse. “Also it makes people think that if a woman doesn’t have bruises she must be OK.”

An EU study has shown that one in three women across the EU has experienced some form of intimate partner violence since the age of 15. That’s not just a statistic. It’s your neighbour. It’s your sister. Your teacher. Your boss. Your friend. Your daughter. It might even be you.

The damage inflicted​ our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe

Domestic abuse knows no boundaries of race, religion, disability or class. Nobody thinks it will happen to them, or that they might be vulnerable to such horrors.

The damage inflicted by our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe. It shapes our understanding of whose experience we consider to be valid, and whose is invalid. It influences who we believe and how we respond when someone we know tells us they have experienced abuse. It bewilders women experiencing fear and anxiety in their relationship. How are the women who don’t look like the photos we exclusively use to represent domestic abuse supposed to think of themselves and their experiences?

As Pia, another survivor, puts it, these kinds of photos give people permission to ask why someone didn’t leave, rather than asking why the man didn’t stop hurting her.

For women to recognise their own experiences they must see themselves represented. For our society to take seriously the experiences and trauma of women who have lived through domestic abuse they must see women affected who are older; they must see women of colour, they must see disabled women, fat women, professional women, young women, working class women, they must see diverse women.

That is why Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance have worked collaboratively with survivors of domestic abuse to produce One Thousand Words, a photography project by Laura Dodsworth, to represent survivors in a different way.

As we develop our understanding of domestic abuse as being a crime that does not require physical violence, we must also recognise the impact of our narrow depictions of victim-survivors of male violence. Those women who have experienced domestic abuse are victims – they have been wronged – but they are not weak. They are survivors, and their strength and courage deserves representation too.

* Some names in this article have been changed

Brenna Jessie is a Scottish feminist, activist and external affairs officer at Scottish Women’s Aid.

This article was initially published in The Guardian.

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Nudes aren’t the problem; abuse is

Nudes aren’t the problem; abuse is

Feminists and activists have long argued that violence against women is never the victim’s fault. We’ve done so against every other powerful influence within society arguing the polar opposite. The media especially can be quick to jump on this, coining catchy headlines which wrongly suggest that the victim got what they deserved, that they were somehow ‘asking for it’.

We’re told that these headlines and stories are just how the media works, it’s meant to be eye-catching, you see. Black inking that does nothing except endorse harmful ideas that a slim majority of Scots already believe and invites others to think the same.

‘What was she wearing’? ‘Had she been drinking’? ‘She provoked him.’ ‘Why doesn’t she just leave’? ‘Why did she take the pictures in the first place’?

These dangerous attitudes don’t just dominate headlines, they seep into court rooms, classrooms, staff rooms and living rooms. They are the norm.

There is no cause without effect, and the impact of these attitudes is far reaching. These attitudes stop women from asking for help for fear that their reaching out will be greeted with blame and shame. These attitudes keep women from reporting sexual violence and domestic abuse. These attitudes make us obsess over the behavior, clothing and alcohol consumption of the victim. The one responsible escapes all scrutiny.

Because that is who is missing from this conversation, isn’t it? The perpetrator: the person who chooses to inflict harm, who chooses to terrorize his victim, the one who hurts her, hits her, controls her, and manipulates her. The person invisible here is the one who breaks the law and shares, or threatens to share, her intimate images.

He has been led to believe that women’s bodies are there for his consumption, for his pleasure and for him to do with as he wishes. Society – including the media – has taught him this.

But now the spotlight is on him.

From July, a new law in Scotland means that anyone who shares or threatens to share someone else’s intimate images or videos without their consent could face up to five years in prison. Those who choose to take a path of abusive behaviour may soon face consequences.

The new law and accompanying Scottish Government awareness raising campaign are indeed progress, we hope, but alone they cannot fix a problem the scale of the one we face.

Intimate images shared between consenting adults is not the problem. The problem is perpetrators who abuse their power, breach her trust and share them without her consent, no matter their motivation. The problem is a society that endorses that behavior by asking what she could and should have done differently.

I know there is still a long way to go; victim blaming runs deep into each crevice and cranny of our communities. But it’s on each and every one of us to challenge it, change it and channel our energies towards a more equal Scotland for all.

Brenna Jessie, Scottish Women’s Aid


Image credit Gilles Lambert via Unsplash

A Race To The Top: adopting a needs-based approach to commissioning specialist services

A Race To The Top: adopting a needs-based approach to commissioning specialist services

Local Authorities in Scotland are not having an easy time of it. The cuts being handed down from Westminster are having a dire impact on not only local authorities and their staff, but also on services and the communities that they were set up to support. Our annual funding survey of the network of 36 Women’s Aid groups in Scotland showed that 97% of respondents received budget cuts or standstill local authority funding in 2015/16. This means that each of these groups faced real terms cuts last year, with no uplift cover increased energy, transport, VAT and other operational costs.

We know that the impact and costs associated with domestic abuse are enormous, and that we can only tackle this problem if local authorities and specialist service providers work together in partnership. But working in partnership requires an understanding of the nature of domestic abuse. It requires an understanding of the scale of the problem, the impact that it has, and the needs of the women, children and young people affected by it. Working in partnership means working towards agreed and shared outcomes. In this complex funding environment, this is easier said than done, but it is possible.

For those involved in commissioning processes – the activities involved in putting services in place – the terms ‘grants’, ‘service contracts’, ‘standing orders’, ‘competitive tendering’, ‘procurement’, ‘service level agreements’ and ‘coproduction’ will all be familiar. But familiarity does not always translate into understanding, and there has been much confusion across the UK, on the part of both local authorities and service providers, as to the routes that can be taken when commissioning services.

In England, for example, there has been a shift towards competitive tendering for domestic abuse service contracts, with some local authorities claiming that this is the only option available.

Just to be clear – it is not.

Competitive tendering is a process by which service providers bid against one another for a service contract. Sounds okay in theory, especially when local authorities are now obliged to consider not just the contract cost, but the quality of the proposed service too. But when we look more closely at how these processes tend to play out, we see service providers undercutting one another, with larger generic organisations squeezing out smaller, specialist ones which have been set up to meet local need; we see existing services being forced to issue redundancies, freeze posts, and cut staff pay, terms and conditions; we see refuges closing, children’s services being slashed and reductions in support for those trying to rebuild their lives in the community; and we see the devastating impact that all of this has on workers and, most importantly, on the women, children and young people who are accessing their services.

Competitive tendering has been described as a ‘race to the bottom’; it is decimating services and it is neither sustainable nor safe. Thankfully, in Scotland, the majority of local authorities realise this; they understand that the use of competitive tendering for domestic abuse service contracts is not appropriate and are taking strategic approaches to commissioning which are rooted in the needs and experiences of those affected by domestic abuse.
This is not the time for local authorities to be rigid in how they fund services. It is a time to be innovative and creative, and to use the tools and approaches available to ensure that we can provide specialist services that meet the needs of the women, children and young people accessing them.

Today Scottish Women’s Aid, in partnership with COSLA, are launching a guidance document, Good Practice in Commissioning Specialist Domestic Abuse Services, for commissioners of specialist domestic abuse services. This guidance will support commissioners in Scotland to consider the nature of domestic abuse, the needs of the women, children and young people affected by it and the range of approaches that they can adopt in commissioning services that meet these needs.

‘The revolution will not be funded’, said INCITE!, the grassroots organisation working to end violence against women of colour. If local authorities listen to women, children and young people affected by domestic abuse, if they use what they hear to shape commissioning processes and, thereby, the services that they fund, then they may not be funding a revolution, but they will certainly be engaged in a revolutionary act.

Orlaith McAree, Service Development Officer


#ChangeHerStory – a joint open letter to MPs from Women’s Aid across the UK

#ChangeHerStory – a joint open letter to MPs from Women’s Aid across the UK

Dear Members of Parliament,

All of us have the right to live free from violence and abuse. Yet violence against women taints all of our communities throughout the United Kingdom; it is rife inEngland, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Available data for 2015 shows that 123 women in the UK were known or suspected to have been killed by men. This means that one woman was killed every three days. Every three days: week in and week out. Families robbed of daughters, sisters, aunts. Children robbed of their mothers. 123 lives taken away and countless more destroyed by loss and grief. Meanwhile, a quarter of women experience domestic abuse in the UK – and those are just the cases that are reported.

Violence against women is a major social crisis. But we have within our grasp the opportunity to do more to protect women and girls. How? By ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention.

The Istanbul Convention is the first international treaty to specifically make violence and abuse against women and girls illegal. It sets legal standards for tackling most forms of violence against women – physical,sexual, emotional or financial – as well as stalking, forced marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Four years ago, the UK Government signed this historic Convention, signalling their commitment to ending violence against women – a beacon of hope for us all. But without ratification, the Convention is just a piece of paper.

Survivors need security, support, advice and counselling, provided by specialist services – like the services run by hundreds of Women’s Aid groups across the UK. These services, and the knowledge of their workers, give women and children the space and tools to rebuild healthy and independent lives. They provide specialist support and hope for tens of thousands of children experiencing domestic abuse, making sure their rights are protected and their voices are heard. Often, these services are run by survivors themselves – women who know what it means to leave an abusive partner. They are experts, providing the best service possible to those who come to them for help, and demand for their help remains sky-high. The Istanbul Convention makes access to these specialist services a right.

But in the UK, these life-saving services are at risk, and in some places are in crisis. Weakened by funding cuts, for many their futures are uncertain. Insecure funding is the single most important concern for services nationwide.

On the 16th of December, Members of Parliament have an incredible opportunity to change this – to make history, and to save lives. We are asking you to seize it. If 100 MPs attend the Second Reading debate of the Private Members Bill on the Istanbul Convention, we will be one step closer to ratifying it. We stand united in asking you, as Members of Parliament and as representatives of women victims and survivors everywhere, to attend this debate on the 16th of December and #ChangeHerstory. Protect these life-saving services and the women and children that depend on them.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Marsha Scott, CEO, Scottish Women’s Aid

Polly Neate, CEO, Women’s Aid Federation England

Jan Melia, CEO, Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland

Eleri Butler, CEO, Welsh Women’s Aid

More than a number

More than a number

On any given day in 2015, 95 women and 11 children contacted Women’s Aid for the very first time. On any given day, 347 women and 331 children were living in a Women’s Aid refuge. On any given day 33 women and 30 children asked for refuge and for 9 women and 7 children there was no suitable accommodation. On any given day 789 women and 348 children are supported by a Women’s Aid group.

But women and children are more than numbers.

Statistics give a snapshot, a tiny glimpse of a global problem that seeps into every nook and cranny of Scottish society. Figures can provide a sense of the issue, but they don’t tell you the impact domestic abuse has on the lives of women and their children. They don’t tell you what it is like to live in constant fear, to be isolated from people you love, to have your self-worth chipped away and to feel your space for action shrinking until you are trapped. Numbers don’t tell you what it is like to leave your worldly belongings, loved ones and pets behind, to leave your school and to move to a Women’s Aid refuge because it’s your only option. Numbers don’t tell you women and children’s stories.

Today – and every day – we think of these women and children and we work with them towards a Scotland where domestic abuse is not tolerated anymore.

But today, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we also celebrate those who have fought for many years and those who will continue to fight to end violence against women in Scotland. We are grateful to and admire those women who put in the long hours, who’ve missed dinner time and instead eat a pot noodle for tea because they are just too tired to cook. We thank those who juggle family, children and friends with demanding hours and work, and we celebrate those whose fingers freeze as they carry placards and march to reclaim the night. And because violence against women is also a child right’s issue, we celebrate children whose voices are important, powerful and deserve to be heard. 

We celebrate the strength, resilience, and power of women and those who have no intention of giving up, just because the going gets tough.

This International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we would like to thank our friends, colleagues, sisters, and allies for their commitment and dedication to creating a better Scotland for everyone. We pay tribute to the strength of survivors and the power of their speaking out and we promise that until domestic abuse is eradicated in Scotland, we’re not going anywhere