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Breaking the cycle of domestic abuse

Karen MacKelvie 'We want domestic abuse to be socially unacceptable' - Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews

THURSDAY evening saw Shetland Women’s Aid host an open doors event in a bid to celebrate and raise awareness of its work.

Staff, volunteers and members of the public came together in the office of the local charity’s St Olaf Street base.

As people chatted, images of Barbies, Bratz dolls and extracts from magazines aimed at young girls were projected onto the wall.

Karen MacKelvie, adult and young people worker, blames such gendered portrayal of women for a lot of the “bad attitude” around issues such as domestic abuse.

“In many ways, we’ve come a long way in terms of achieving equality for women,” MacKelvie said, while indicating an image of a simpering Snow White on the wall amidst a bevy of scantily clad and equally vacant-looking Disney princesses.

“But we still have to deal with stuff like this. There is a huge amount of media pressure on women.

“Much of this attitude has been passed down through the years. A lot of the language we use today comes from historical laws designed to oppress women.

“For example, there was a law that it was forbidden to beat your wife with a stick thicker than your thumb. We still use the phrase “rule of thumb” today without any sense of its history. And people still tell young boys to ‘toughen up’ and ‘be a man’.”

Shetland Women’s Aid currently has two full time and eight part time paid members of staff. The charity offers a range of services to its clients: counselling, creative therapies, emotional and practical support, crisis intervention and refuge accommodation.

For women who are assessed as being at high risk of serious harm, there is also the IDAA (independent domestic abuse advocate) service, which works with other agencies to reduce risk to the client in question.

The shame and stigma surrounding domestic abuse make it a “hidden problem” and MacKelvie and her colleagues are keen to “chip away at public awareness” surrounding the issue.

“We want domestic abuse to be socially unacceptable,” MacKelvie said.

Caroline Leask, counsellor and support worker believes that women suffering from domestic abuse in Shetland can find it very difficult to seek help.

“In a small community you run the risk of offending friends and family.”

Women’s stories of domestic abuse are often depressingly alike, Leask observed. “The patterns are so similar – it’s like the women have exchanged notes. Yet so often abuse can be isolating. People think they’re alone and that it’s only happening to them.”

IDAA worker Katie Leask reveals that around two or three clients a month are assessed as being at high risk of serious harm, although this has, on occasion, risen to as many as six.

It is Leask’s job to liaise with other agencies to form a safety plan to help women who are in danger.

It is clear that Shetland Women’s Aid offers a wide range of support for women who are suffering from abuse.

Yet can anything be done to treat the symptoms of abuse and prevent it from happening? MacKelvie believes that this is where her work with young people in schools comes in.

“We’re currently looking for funding so that this work can continue. Visiting schools, talking with young people about gender and power is so important.

“It’s vital to tackle common misconceptions about domestic abuse too. Domestic abuse doesn’t always take physical form and it isn’t always caused by alcohol. We need to see it as being part of a pattern of power and control rather than a series of incidents.”

International Women’s Day on Sunday calls on people around the world to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality between the sexes.

With this is mind, I ask the staff at Shetland’s Women Aid why women are so underrepresented in local politics.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”, MacKelvie says. “If girls don’t see examples of women in positions of power then they don’t think they can aspire to these roles. And the cycle continues.”

Genevieve White