I was struck by the content of two discussions on Channel 4 on May 31st. One was in the news at 7 pm, the other a documentary later that evening.
The news item was regarding women in domestic abuse situations. We do appear to have the narrative that always suggests women ‘should do something’, or ‘if it was me, I would leave’, suggesting that the woman is okay with the situation. I say this because, whatever happens, women are the ones who have to change their lives in order to escape the stranglehold, or possible death, held over them. This feels like women are being punished for the behaviour of others. The news story was about women, and their children, being put into Witness Protection Programmes without being fully aware or informed of the reality of what it will be like for them. They understand that they must leave behind family and friends, that they will relocate to somewhere, which may need to be in another country, and they have to get used to calling each other different names. This is extremely hard for children who have suffered so much trauma, and often their friends and school have been their safe people and spaces.
In the news item, the presenter spoke to a woman and a child in the Witness Protection Programme. They described the difficulties and emotional impact for them. The perpetrator in this case was given a short custodial sentence, which is common, and then he is out and free to abuse again.
The reason this was a news item was because people are highlighting this situation as something that does need to be tackled and resolved. So, that the families who do enter the Programme are absolutely aware of the significant impact this will have in their new lives, and will have emotional support to help with this.
Fortunately, it is only the most extremely damaging domestic abuse situations, which may result in death, that necessitate such extreme measures.
The documentary I mentioned was called ‘A paedophile in My Family: Surviving Dad’. This was a story about Emily, a successful media and business women and a survivor of sexual abuse from the age of five or six until she was 18. Her father received a custodial sentence of 14 years following Emily’s disclosure to police when she was 18 – she is now in her early thirties. Emily’s father was already released and was being supported as a registered sex offender. Emily wanted to face her father so she could ask him questions: “Do you remember the first time you sexually abused me?”, and “What do you think of me as a person?”. She also wanted to see if he had changed at all. The programme follows Emily’s journey towards the meeting between herself and the father. The process for this to happen is called Restorative Justice, accessed by many people who may be ‘victims’ or perpetrators of crime.
What struck me was the resilience, composure, and strength that Emily showed throughout this extremely emotional documentary. Having worked in this field and met many survivors, I was amazed by her. Here she was, a successful business woman, self-assured and confident.
At each step, Emily showed so much emotion, but also empathy with the people who should have protected her. She reached out to those from her formative years: Emily was the one reassuring and helping them to feel okay.
We saw her speaking with her mother about the past, a subject they had shied away from previously. She spoke to teachers, friends, a Restorative Justice specialist worker, and the police involved in her initial disclosure. All these meetings were emotionally charged, but Emily handled them with such skill and composure. The meeting with the police described her being groomed from the age of two, and graphic details regarding the abuse, which we didn’t hear, but very difficult for Emily to listen to. The male police officer was visibly moved when discussing her situation and how she presented at her initial interview. Both police officers handled the situation extremely well.
It was a roller-coaster of emotion for me too, having worked with children, but nothing like that which Emily had to endure, of course.
Sadly, the Restorative Justice worker reported back that the father didn’t want to meet her in case it upset his situation and ‘might interfere with him getting a job’.
Emily did feel that going through this process had helped her enormously and she felt more in control of her life.
I suppose what I’m trying to highlight here is that these women, who are so strong, have had to encounter so many significant hurdles. They have had to navigate through systems that can be hostile. Why is it such a struggle to be heard, and why, in the twenty-first century, are women still having to change their lives because we have agencies that mitigate against justice, with abusive behaviour going unpunished?