Saturday, 5 December 2015

The usefulness of domestic violence perpetrator programmes (5 December 2015)

Nicole Westmarland



Over five years ago Respect – the national organisation for work with domestic violence perpetrator programmes – told us about the problems they were having in evidencing whether or not the programmes their members provided were really making a difference to the lives of (predominantly) women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Project Mirabal was named after the three Mirabal sisters who were murdered in Dominican Republic and became symbols of feminist resistance when November 25th was designated an international day to protest violence against women, and was led by Professor Liz Kelly and myself.

There was a lot of interest in our research from the start. Internationally, there have been few of these longitudinal outcome studies on any interventions aimed at reducing domestic violence. Given the attention domestic violence now attracts, it is both surprising and scary how little we actually know about ‘what works’. Studies of this nature are expensive, and we rightly felt a lot of pressure to ‘get it right’ and make sure that we conducted a nuanced and useful study that would be useful to the various stakeholders. Respect were very clear from the start that they were ready to hear anything we had to tell them – if they weren’t making a difference they wanted to change their programmes and rethink their approach.

We started by considering the question what does ‘work’ mean? What does it mean, from the perspective of different stakeholders, to say that a programme ‘worked’. From this pre-study we developed six ‘measures of success’. These measures include safety and freedom from violence and abuse but also better parenting, respectful communication, increased space for action, and self-awareness. These six measures were taken forward into our outcome study.

The quantitative part of the outcome study, based on 100 women’s reports of their partner or ex-partner’s behaviour over a 15 month period, found marked reductions in men’s use of physical and sexual violence. For example, ‘made you do something sexual that you did not want to do’ reduced from 30% of women saying this happened before the programme to 0% afterwards. Similarly, ‘used a weapon against you’ reduced from 29% to 0%. Far fewer women reported being physically injured after the programme (61% before compared to 2% after).

Improvements were also found in terms of men’s use of coercive control, women’s individual freedom and their ‘space for action’. However, these changes were not as marked as they were for physical and sexual violence. For example, ‘he tells me to change the way I dress or my appearance’ reduced from 57% of women to 16% and ‘he tries to prevent me seeing or contacting my friends/family’ reduced from 65% to 15%. Interestingly, hardly any change was seen for ‘he tries to use money/finances to control me’ – reducing only marginally from 50% to 47%. Most women continued to feel afraid of how their ex-partner would react if they got a new partner or felt they had to be careful around him if he was in a bad mood.

This is just a small extract of our findings from a long and complex research study. However, they do show some optimism in terms of steps towards change that can be made if perpetrators choose to do so. Some men only made a few halting steps forward, a minority took steps backwards. Others started taking small steps and ended up making great strides. What was clear in our study was that for many men, women and children, their lives were improved to some extent following a domestic violence perpetrator programme.


The final report is available here

Project Mirabal was funded by the ESRC and the Northern Rock Foundation.


Author profile

Professor Nicole Westmarland is Director of the Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA). Nicole is widely known as an academic activist in the area of male violence against women. She is committed to doing research to inform both policy and practice. Her career to date has been reflective of this, with work with grassroots violence against women groups informing and being informed by her academic research. She has sat on a number of governmental and non-governmental advisory committees and chaired Rape Crisis (England and Wales) for five years.

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