Monday, 30 September 2013

Care Versus Control

It's another exciting day for Girlguiding, as the nation's largest charity for girls and young women launches another campaign to get the voice of its membership heard.

"Care Versus Control" is a new report that uses Girlguiding's "Girls' Attitudes Survey" data to show how young women view coercion, abuse and healthy relationships. It forms part of our work on the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) Stop The Violence campaign, and also highlights the importance of peer education in discussing issues of relationships and abuse with young people.

Some of the statistics are shocking:
  • Only 23% of girls aged 11-17 fully understood what an abusive relationship was
  • Only 18% of girls mentioned psychological or emotional pressures when asked about abuse
  • 12% of girls thought that telling you who you can and can't spend time with is ok
  • 21% said that telling you what you can and can't wear is acceptable
  • 21% said that calling you names could be ok
  • 22% thought that checking up on you and reading your phone was acceptable
  • 39% said that making you tell your partner where you are all the time is fine

Presumably, by reversing the presented statistics:
  • 4% think that kicking, biting or hitting a girl for talking to someone else at a party is ok
  • 5% think that it is sometimes ok to threaten a girl with violence for spending time with friends
  • 6% think it can be acceptable to threaten a girl into having sex in certain circumstances

The "Care Versus Control" report lays out what many of us youth professionals have known for a long time, and what Christine Barter (who conducts the NSPCC research on behalf of the University of Bristol) has also reported; young people want peer educators, not teachers or trained professionals.

In Girlguiding, we are lucky to have an established Peer Education system, with fantastic and fully trained young women aged 14-26 who offer sessions on various sensitive topics. I often find that this resource is underused, particularly in my area. It's an example I often point to when working with teachers; training older pupils to be mentors and session leaders will have multiple benefits.

Firstly, it allows the young people involved in discussion to open up in a way that they can't always do with their "regular" adult. Certain phrases, types of language and attitudes are often seen as unacceptable in a normal meeting or classroom environment. If we want our young people to be comfortable and open in discussion, they also need to be comfortable and open in the language they can use to facilitate that, and be free from judgement in that. Outside providers also free them fro lasting embarrassment with a face they have to see each week, as well as providing the trained "mentors" with valuable leadership and transferable skills.

Understandably, and quite rightly, the "Care Versus Control" report has sparked debate on Twitter, asking questions such as "how can we help girls to recognise abusive relationships?" 

One lady, who shall be called HH, replied "Ensure your own relationships are healthy and lead by example". I wasn't sure I agreed with this statement. In fact, I positively bristled at it, and it took me a little while to work out and articulate why.

As you may know, I'm a huge advocate for leading by example. I find that in my teaching and in my Guiding, I make it my personal motto never to ask my young people to do anything that I wouldn't be comfortable doing myself. I will offer them the chance, of course (I might not feel comfortable doing zip wire, but they still have the opportunity!), but a girl who is struggling with fear will never be forced into it.

So given my own love of this philosophy, and my pedagogical knowledge of the power of modelling, why is it that the "lead by example" response in this case caused so much discord?

Those without experience of abusive relationships often find it difficult to understand the pressures and the attachment that are part of them. It takes a lot of courage to recognise that your own relationship is unhealthy, because it's so easy to try and explain problems away as a rough patch, or something that will get better, or even something that he does because he loves you. And it takes even more strength to walk away from it. Sometimes, that's because you're in love and can't imagine life without them, sometimes it's fear of the consequences, sometimes it's more practical matters like wondering where you're going to live.

When I was younger, a male friend of mine decided he wanted to date me. He put a lot of pressure on me until I finally agreed (knowing I could break it off, because I was moving cities in a few weeks). He pressured me into things I didn't want to do, stopped me seeing certain friends, even sat in the back of my car as I drove an ex-girlfriend from Luton to Sheffield at 2am because he was insanely jealous and didn't trust me. He then asked my parents' permission to marry me, and they announced it locally without even asking. They offered me £50,000 to keep my mouth shut and go through with the wedding. Despite everything that man did to me, the knowledge that I would be financially secure was an incredibly tempting offer.

I knew that relationship was unhealthy, but I wasn't sure where to turn or how to get out of it. 

Women's Aid tell us that when we support other women, we should ensure we listen to their stories and we acknowledge their difficult, traumatic and frightening situation. We also ensure we tell them that no-one deserves to suffer abuse. But we must never tell them to leave the relationship, in case they aren't ready to take that step and in case it's removing another element of control in their lives.

You see, when you survive any sort of abuse, it becomes a matter of regaining control. What that control is, is specific to each individual. But by telling a woman to "ensure" her relationships are healthy, we are judging her relationships, telling her to leave those that are abusive and removing that element of control.

It is also a fine line between a statement that tells the woman to "ensure healthy relationships" and victim blaming. If it is the woman who has the responsibility to make sure her relationships are healthy, there is a subtext that women suffering abuse are to blame for not taking that responsibility. This is simply not true; it is always the fault of the abuser.

I can see where HH was coming from in her advice for other leaders. I can understand how leaders with healthy relationships can help facilitate discussion for others. But in some ways, isn't this somewhat like atheist leaders discussing faith with their girls? It may not be something that comes naturally, and may even be uncomfortable for some, but just because it is not an experience that you are living first hand, doesn't mean that you are in an unsuitable position to be facilitating exploration for others.

Of course, many leaders don't wish to share the personal details of their relationships with their units anyway. Some of my older Senior Section members were aware that I was dating a Guide leader from Leeds last year, but not all of them and certainly not my Guides. None of my girls are aware of my current dating situation and that's the way I like it. I certainly don't want to be "modelling" to my units using my personal life!

"Care Versus Control" is an incredibly important compilation of research, and shows the extent to which the current education system is failing our young people in terms of real-world education. However, the debates coming from this report and Girlguiding's tweets on Twitter also show how badly we need to educate our adults about the difference between empowering women, facilitating discussion and laying responsibility on the wrong parties.

You can read the full "Care Versus Control" report here

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