Star turn

October 15, 1999

Family violence takes place behind closed doors. Alison Utley listens to a lecturer who makes it a community concern

"I haven't told them what today's subject is," says Julie Pryke as we wait for the students to arrive. "Otherwise there's a risk that the men won't show up."

Relationship abuse is a tough topic, and Ms Pryke is anxious to stress from the start that although most victims are women, men can also be subject to abuse, be it physical, emotional or economic. As it happens there is only a handful of men in class today and some have direct experience of violence in the home. They want to share their experiences with the group of third-year community studies students at Bradford and Ilkley Community College. Ms Pryke skilfully draws out the issues without allowing the discussion to become personalised.

There is an easy rapport in the room as she splits the class into small groups of four or five and hands out large sheets of paper and marker pens asking them to come up with definitions and common assumptions about relationship abuse or, as it used to be called, domestic violence.

"It's so important to get their input right from the start," she says. "As well as gaining experience of presenting their ideas to others, they encourage each other and really think deeply about a topic. If it was just me all the time I couldn't be sure it was all going in."

Abusers are stereotypically male, working class with financial and or drink problems, possibly out of work. Victims, or survivors, are assumed to be female and in some way responsible for the violence.

But the true picture is often far more complex.

We hear about the case of a woman whose elderly husband regularly beat her. The authorities refused to take her complaints seriously because the husband seemed such a nice old chap who did voluntary work in the community. Social workers even laughed when she asked for help. Then he murdered her.

The police have become far more adept at handling complaints .

Ms Pryke shows old transcripts of conversations that make the group shudder. One woman covered in bruises was told by an officer: "You really should have had his tea ready, love."

Teaching the legal side of this subject is a nightmare, concedes Ms Pryke, because the law changes. "I like to keep in touch with community groups as much as possible so I know what's going on out there," she says.

Having recently given up community work to teach full-time, Ms Pryke is probably better placed than most to understand the real world and she constantly draws on her experience.

"I was working long hours and carrying a lot of emotional baggage. I began part-time teaching to break the routine," she says. "The teaching gradually took over."

Everyone agrees this is a particularly heavy subject, and we stop a little earlier than planned to release the tension. The message is clear, however. Relationship abuse is the misuse of power.

Ms Pryke reiterates that the most important lesson to understand is that the perpetrator has a choice. The trouble is most people would rather turn the other way. In case we are tempted to do that, a quote from Paolo Freire pinned to her door reminds us: "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

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