Features: October 14th, 2011

Woodward Lewis and Blaenau Gwent Domestic Abuse Services are changing the deep-rooted culture of acceptance of domestic abuse by unlocking the community’s existing wisdoms.This article explains how the challenge is approached and the results achieved.

Domestic abuse is endemic in the UK. Estimates from the British Crime Survey 2009/10 indicate that 1 million women in the UK experienced domestic abuse from a partner or ex-partner in the preceding 12 months. On average, two women each week are killed by a partner or ex-partner.

One of the main problems in tackling this problem is that domestic abuse takes place behind closed doors and is a very private crime . It takes, on average, 34 instances of abuse before a victim contacts any agency for help. There are many reasons for this, including shame, fear, self-blame and a general acceptance of domestic abuse as the norm.

It is the Government’s strategic aim to end all violence against women and girls. Blaenau Gwent Domestic Abuse Service (BGDAS) is playing a key role in the region to combat the problem for both women and men. BGDAS provides safety measures, advice, advocacy and support for those affected by domestic abuse. Over the last three years, domestic abuse crime has increased by 38 per cent within Blaenau Gwent, but of these incidents 55 per cent of crimes remained undetected, which means the offender received no sanctions as charges were dropped.

On behalf of Safer Blaenau Gwent and with support from Gwent Police and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, BGDAS is delivering this home office pilot. It aims to tackle the under-reporting and undetected nature of domestic abuse by getting rid of the general acceptance of it. It wants to bring the problem out from behind closed doors and get people to talk about it, not wait until the 35th incident before seeking help.

How Positive Deviants can help

BGDAS wanted to raise awareness in a positive way and decided that Positive Deviance (PD) was the right approach. PD creates change by getting the community itself to challenge problems and unlock hidden wisdom. As the under-reporting and undetected nature of domestic abuse is due to the behaviours of the community itself, PD could create the cultural shift required to get people to talk about domestic abuse. Talking about it would spread the word that it was unacceptable.

With Woodward Lewis, the UK’s leading Positive Deviance specialists, BGDAS has rolled out and is implementing a PD programme, funded by the Home Office. PD is based on change from within the community. It is not a top-down or professional-led approach. The community becomes the ‘process owners’; they define the problem, they develop and use their own information to discover the scale of the problem and they look within their community for ‘positive deviants’. Positive Deviants face the same challenges as others in their community, but they successfully address the same problem by acting differently.

In every community or organisation there are Positive Deviants and the community in Blaenau Gwent is no exception. The aim of the Blaenau Gwent PD process was to find the practices and strategies of those Positive Deviants who are already open to talking about domestic abuse. Once uncovered, the community finds ways of disseminating the strategies via practical activities. Importantly, the community owns the measuring and recording process, providing motivation for change and a sustainable solution.

Throughout the process Woodward Lewis is providing mentoring to the staff team in the PD programme. Observing the progress throughout, but ensuring limited active involvement, Woodward Lewis offered the guidance necessary to make the PD programme a success.

People don’t talk about domestic abuse

The first step in the PD approach was to organise a community group and BGDAS mobilised a community group consisting of men and women of varying ages. Many of the group had been touched by domestic abuse in some way and all of them were excited about the positive deviance concept. In their first meetings, the group – without input from Woodward Lewis or BGDAS staff members – defined the problem and the desired result.

The problem, as defined by members of the community, was that ‘people don’t talk about domestic abuse’.

Community treasure hunt

Using questionnaires and further discussion, the group took the problem statement to the community to check it was true. 76 per cent of the 250 local people questioned felt domestic abuse was a topic often avoided in conversation. When asked how much they knew about the issue of domestic abuse, 61 per cent said they knew little to nothing about the issue, but when asked whether domestic abuse was an issue in Blaenau Gwent only 5 per cent said there was no problem.

This step also saw the identification of ‘Positive Deviants’ and it was established that in the context of the problem, PDs realised the scope of the problem, they didn’t feel the need to resolve the issue, but just raised it and listened non-judgementally. They checked with a professional if they were unsure about something and they knew the correct individuals to turn to for professional help. In this process a few key individuals, such as taxi drivers and hairdressers, showed PD traits. In this case the PD practices included creating a safe space to talk, not looking directly at the person talking, being non-judgmental, and allowing people to just open up without interrupting.

Community practices, not preaches

To disseminate the PD behaviours through the community and create a culture of openness about domestic abuse, breaking its deep-rooted acceptance, the group came up with the Big Brother Experience. In this experience, people were asked to speak in front of a camera at events around the borough. Participants were not told anything about the experience before and project members were not in the room with them. After the Big Brother Experience they filled in a questionnaire and were shown the findings from previous data collection illustrating the importance of talking about domestic abuse.

Cath James, Project Manager of BGDAS says: “The videos gave the women ‘permission’ to speak. For some this broke a lifetime silence, giving them the tools to change their belief that this is a private issue and creating a change in their behaviour. When the victims realise they have the permission to speak it is incredibly powerful and in some cases we saw mothers and daughters communicating for the first time, on video, about an issue that had played such a prominent, but unspoken, part in their homes. By uncovering the practices of Positive Deviants, we have found a way to create that cultural shift and shrink the perception that domestic abuse is acceptable.”

The community tracks progress

Using all the data gathered throughout the exercises, along with official data from BGDAS, the community is tracking the progress of PD. They found that 73 per cent felt it was either very easy or easy to talk about domestic abuse in front of the camera, with 68 per cent stating they would be more likely to talk about the issue now.

Sgt Andy O’Keefe, Gwent Police, says: “Getting people to talk about domestic abuse will help others understand the issue and prevent young and old, male and female entering abusive relationships. Furthermore, it will help create a belief that reporting incidents is permitted and allow those already in abusive relationships to receive help. With the police, the group is tracking whether referrals to the right authorities go up or down. Either could be a good outcome. ”

Scaling it up

More than 100 people have taken part in the project so far and it is anticipated that this figure will at least double before the project is finished.

After the initial success, there is a drive to recruit new members to the community group pushing the project forward. The video footage is also being used to create a documentary to raise awareness around domestic abuse and the need to talk.

Jane Lewis, partner, Woodward Lewis, says: “This project achieved great results in a very short time from nothing – between January and June 2011. It is typical of a positive deviance project in that it created a lot of community energy and passion, and that the community’s working group exceeded all agency expectations. The group found an aspect of domestic abuse that it was safe and realistic to tackle. They are helping the community to act its way into a new way of thinking about domestic abuse, and the group feels total ownership of the process and what has been achieved. They can now replicate it in new parts of the community and tackle different but related issues without external help, substantially helping the Police and local agencies by focusing their resources on where they are needed the most. Cath James has acted as a model positive deviance facilitator, using creative tools and techniques to build the group but allowing them the freedom to operate within the positive deviance community coaching structure. The local partnership team has been very supportive and given them the space to work effectively.”

About Woodward Lewis

Woodward Lewis is a consultancy specialising in Positive Deviance. Started in 1990, it has helped many organisations, including local authorities, central Government institutions and businesses deliver strategic and practical change. Since 2005, Woodward Lewis has been working closely with the Positive Deviance Initiative in Boston to develop practical ways of teaching and sharing the approach and now delivers Positive Deviance programmes to both communities and organisations within the UK. Woodward Lewis brings a team of nine highly qualified experts to create impactful and lasting change within communities and organisations. Jane Lewis, partner at Woodward Lewis, has lectured on this approach at Said Business School, University of Oxford, HEC Paris and Oxford Brookes University. For more information visit Woodward Lewis at: http://www.woodward-lewis.co.uk/