This two part article was written in 1996 and printed in the newsletter of The Change Centre, a community organisation in Nevis, West Indies, which works with women victims of violence among other things.
(I don't use the word "batterers" because I believe that any man can change and stop his battering behavior.)
"Tell us about what brought you to group,"
I ask the man who has come for the first time to the Nonviolent Alternatives
Program. "Well," he replies, "my wife and I got into a fight
and the judge said I had to come here."
"What do you mean got into a fight," I respond. "You know, she wasted some money again and I got mad about it," he says. "And then what happened," I query. "I grabbed her and I guess I slapped her a little, but I didn't punch her," he responds, "besides she started it. I can't really remember what happened after that, I just kind of lost it."
In such a situation I would follow up with questions about what it meant to "lose it,"whether the woman had been injured and whether the police had come. Working with men who batter involves many small decisions about when to probe and push a man and when to acept that he's gone as far as he can for the time being (knowing that there will be further opportunities for him to go deeper). This is particularly true the first time someone comes to group--when we ask him to "tell it all" in front of a group of strange men. If the group is going well and there are other men who have made real progress in their own efforts to become nonviolent, than my co-facilitator and I may get some help from participants who will ask their own questions or share their experiences.
I have worked with men who have acted out violently for over 10 years and have worked with programs for men who have been violent and abusive to their women partners (wives or girlfriends) for the past four years. In the United States, these programs grew out of the movement to protect and assist battered women. Once services were in place for women, it seemed natural to look at how to help men. Changing laws to deal more severely with domestic violence and to have the justice system apply those laws consistently has been part of the struggle. However, many of us don't see imprisonment as an effective way to help men learn to be nonviolent. In fact, the environment in prisons often fosters greater aggressiveness and violence.
During the past 15 years what started out as just a few volunteer programs working with men who batter has grown into a significant field with active programs in most major cities and many rural areas. There are varied approaches and styles which these programs have adopted. I will focus on those in which I have worked, which loosely utilize the program developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth, Minnesota. DAIP pioneered an approach which understood issues of power and control to be the basis for domestic violence. We believe that men who are abusive believe deep inside that they have a right to tell their partner what to do, to be in control of her life and the family. The programs for men are only a small component of a larger strategy called a "Comprehensive Community Response" to domestic violence. Men must receive consistent messages that violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
It isn't difficult to find sources in our culture which give men the message that they should be in control. Although there have been changes in the past 30 years, primarily because of the successful advocacy of the women's movement, we remain a society dominated by men. (I am speaking directly about the U.S. here, but from my observations in the Federation there are unfortunately, many similarities.) Religion, the media, the political system, the economy and other important institutions in society are still by and large controlled by men.
When I first came into personal contact with the women's movement in 1979 I was challenged by its demand that I treat women equally. I quickly came to see the truth in that perspective, though living it out isn't always easy. By the time I was facilitating a group I had been personally working on these issues for over 10 years. Nonetheless, being in the group requires continued work on my part to be sure that I'm really challenging the men and refusing to go along with their sexist beliefs.
Those of us who base our work with men on the idea that the fundamental problem is that men believe they have the right to be in control in their relationships with women spend much of our time seeking to educate. A key tool which is used by many groups is the Power and Control Wheel. The wheel provides a visual picture of different ways that men try to exert power and control over their women partners. A second such tool, the Equality Wheel is used to provide ideas on what a positive relationship looks like--a partnership among equals who work together cooperatively.
In groups, we use videos, discussion, roleplaying and other exercises to help men identify different forms of abuse. Most of the men know what physical abuse is, even if they feel it is justified to use violence in certain situations. Defining emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, economic abuse and other forms requires more effort. We have found that using situations involving other people often makes it easier for the men to understand how abuse operates. Videos of short scenes involving the different forms of abuse are shown. Afterward the group leaders (or facilitators) ask questions of the participants to help them identify what happened, what sort of abuse occurred, how the abuse affected the people involved and what alternative types of action could have been taken. Our goal is for men to apply what they learn from the discussions and videos about abuse to their own lives and relationships.
A strong effort is made to create a respectful atmosphere in the group where people are not attacked or put down, but where men are challenged on abusive behavior or attitudes which are likely to lead to abuse. Part of setting this tone is the role modeling of the facilitators. In that role, I always make it clear to the other men that I have been and at times am still abusive to my partner. Although I haven't been physically abusive, I still have my own work to do. Because we recognize that the changes we are seeking are very far-reaching and will take many years, we encourage men to get involved for the long-term.
Each group of men is different, but there are often at least a couple of men in any group who have come to realize that relationships based on caring and support are more desirable than those based on power and control. Such men play an important role in talking to their peers as we encourage the men to open up and talk about conflicts in their relationships.
At the end of each group we save time for any man to talk about something which has happened recently. It is a time for men to confess to abuse and talk about what they might have done differently, or for them to get support for a difficult situation they are facing. I know that having the opportunity to talk with other men about their problems is an important part of the solution. Many group participants feel great relief at being able to share with others who have gone through similar difficulties, and they feel can really understand them.
How successful are these programmes? There have been no large scale studies to provide us with conclusive answers to this question. From my experience most of the men learn something valuable from the group. Many are able to eliminate or reduce the worst forms of abuse. Only those who find ways to continue working to become truly nonviolent begin to develop relationships which are truly based on respect and equality. Men who come to group only because a Judge told them they had to will benefit very little unless they decide that they have a problem and need to change. However, the more that society as a whole begins to takes these problems seriously and give men (and women) consistent messages that abuse is wrong, the easier it will be for all of us to change.