16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence is an annual international campaign, running from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 25th November, until Human Rights Day 10th December. Unfortunately, domestic abuse is prevalent in our society, and it is estimated that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives.

The EIS are represented on the Scottish Government Health and Wellbeing – Gender Based Violence Working Group, which looks at the development of a new national framework on how schools can help tackle gender-based violence.

Domestic abuse is often believed to happen only in marriages or long-term relationships between adults, but some organisations are working hard to increase awareness of the prevalence also within young people’s relationships.

For this year’s 16 Days of Activism, the EIS spoke to Scottish Women’s Aid about their recent work to support young women and girls who experience domestic abuse within their own relationships.

Young Woman Rise

Young Women Rise, an advisory panel of 10 young women and girls from across Scotland, led on participative research to find out more about their peers’ experience of domestic abuse within their own intimate relationships. The ensuing research report was called the Rise report.

Commissioned by Scottish Women’s Aid, in partnership with YWCA Scotland, the Rise report aimed to provide insights to better support young women between the ages of 12 to 25. Our network of Women’s Aid frontline services wanted to know how young women think about healthy and unhealthy relationships, where they look for support if they have concerns, and how we can make Women’s Aid services work for them.

The research included a national survey with qualitative feedback, and a series of targeted focus groups (full methodology in the Rise report)

What were the findings?

Over 1 in 3 young women who took part (36%) had been in an intimate relationship with someone who was abusive or harmed them physically or emotionally. Nearly 3 out of 4 young women knew someone who had been in an abusive relationship.

While many young women and girls reported understanding what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, they also reported gaps in teaching and learning about teenage abusive relationships: not a single respondent felt supported to learn about this at school.

“I didn’t ever learn about it in school apart from them talking about physical violence in a relationship. Generally, there’s almost nothing mainstream that discusses teenage abusive relationships or where to get support.”

“We learned we could say no, but we were never taught what to do if they ignored that. We could get free condoms and that was it… there was a lot missing.”

Most young women learnt about relationships via social media, and respondents had mixed views about whether this had a positive or a negative impact on their ability to navigate relationships: 30% said social media helped them understand, and 31% said it negatively impacted their understanding. A lot of responses highlighted the complexities of social media navigation.

“I do believe in having a public platform where women can see what are red flags… and give them a better understanding of what to accept in their relationship. On the other hand, Instagram can show all the good, exciting, romantic parts of relationships which is very likely not to be a true reflection of any relationship.”

While young women understand the term domestic abuse, there are some misconceptions about who is affected by it. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, in any type of intimate relationship. However, participants described domestic abuse as only occurring when you live with your abuser. Some also suggested domestic abuse happens when a couple have children or are married, and that domestic abuse does not happen within young people’s relationships. Young women also reported that if their intimate partner were abusive towards them, they would only seek support if they thought this abuse was “serious”, often minimising their experiences in comparison to those married to or living with a perpetrator.

“I’d feel like my problems weren’t valid stood next to a 40-year-old mum with two kids and a story much worse than mine.”

What did young women and girls say about the support they wanted?

The Rise report findings provide good insight into how young women and girls want to be supported when experiencing abuse. Here are some of the things young women felt they needed from the person they disclose to:

Validate their experience: young women and girls need their experiences to be validated by those to whom they disclose. They need to know that how they are being treated by their intimate partner is not acceptable. The message should be clear: you are entitled to support – abuse, in any form, should not be tolerated.

Follow their lead: participants reported wanting to remain in control of their disclosure: how it would be used, who it would be discussed with and whether or how it would be escalated. They felt disinclined to disclose if they felt they would have no control over what the next steps would be, as they feared the information would be escalated in a way they had not consented to, making things worse. Whilst school staff must follow child protection guidance and cannot promise confidentiality, they can reflect the young woman’s voice within the appropriate process, communicating their wishes to the agencies involved. “I’d [..] worry interaction with them would only escalate a situation rather than providing a way out. Or an accessible way for those without transport, or who can’t change location for university, or who have a fear of strangers or who can’t wait till space becomes available.”

Non-judgemental, empathetic support: participants talked about wanting to be able to talk to someone to receive emotional support. The most important thing is that they did not want to feel judged, just listened to and be heard.

Be inclusive: young women and girls wanted to feel that the support on offer is inclusive. They called for all support to be clearly anti-racist, LGBTQ+ informed, and accessible to all young women and girls. While they understood that it wasn’t always possible to speak to a member of staff whose identity reflected theirs, they wanted assurance that staff received appropriate training to be able to support them in an inclusive way.

Educate: participants felt that education should start early and focus on dismantling the root causes of abuse, supporting young people to recognise the signs of unhealthy relationships and supports that are available. This should be expansive and inclusive, ensuring young women with varied experiences are represented and LGBTQ+ relationships are included.

Education professionals will come across many young women and girls who experience domestic abuse and who may disclose or request support. Though school staff should not be expected to replace the support of specialist domestic abuse services or child protection agencies, they can play a key role in creating an environment where the young person can access the support they need. Against this background, keeping up to date with national and local child protection guidance is vital.