Leopards can’t change their spots but domestic violence programmes do change lives

Can abusive men change their ways after group sessions? shutterstock

“Can a leopard really change its spots?” “Does everyone deserve a second chance?” “Do perpetrator programmes work?” These are some of the questions we are being asked this week as we release findings from a programme of research five years in the making – Project Mirabal.

As feminists concerned with the safety and freedom of women and children, it would be fair to say we took with us a healthy degree of scepticism as we went into this research on the effectiveness of intervention programmes. Our previous projects and those of our peers have taught us that men who use violence in relationships are often not only physically violent, but manipulative, threatening, controlling and abusive.

But our previous research has also shown us that if we really want to end domestic violence, working with women and children just isn’t enough. It is absolutely essential that something happens to the men. The problem is, we have surprisingly little knowledge at the moment about what that “something” looks like or who it might work for.

Domestic violence perpetrator programmes involve groups of men who have used violence or abuse against a partner or ex-partner. Some are ordered by a criminal court to go on these programmes as part of their sentence. But the programmes we looked at were attended by men who had volunteered or who had been referred by social services, a family court or by a partner telling them that if they don’t get “professional help”, their relationship would be over.

Early in the programme they learn techniques for managing their feelings and their use of violence. Later in the course, they consider how their actions affect others – including their children – and are challenged to think about what male dominance means both in their relationship and in the world outside. They are lengthy programmes, and women (and sometimes children) are offered support alongside, but separate to, the men’s programme.

We found remarkable results in terms of the reduction in physical and sexual violence. A total of 30% of women involved in the programme reported being made to “do something sexual” they did not want to do in the three months before the programme started. That was reduced to zero a year after starting the programme.

Similarly, reporting of having a weapon used against them reduced from 29% to zero. Those who said they were slapped, punched or had something thrown at them reduced from 87% to 7%. Far fewer women reported being physically injured after the programme (61% before compared to 2% after), and the extent to which children saw or overheard violence also dropped substantially, from 80% to 8%.

Beyond the physical

But of course, the story does not end there. Feminists have been working for decades now to dispel the myth that domestic violence equals physical and sexual violence. Women often report, as they did in our pilot study, that it wasn’t always the physical violence that was the worst. It was the more subtle forms of control. It was not having their own money, seeing their children or their pets being treated badly and having to restrict their lives in an attempt to live by their partner’s rules to keep them happy.

This is why we included six different measures of success in our research. The other five measures of success – respectful relationships; expanded space for action; decreased isolation; enhanced parenting and understanding the impact of domestic violence – did all see improvements as well, though not to the extent that was seen for the physical and sexual violence, and in many cases not to the extent that women might have hoped for.

Fewer children were scared of the perpetrator, fewer children were worried about the safety of their mother, men were less likely to try to make excuses for their behaviour, and less likely to try to prevent women from contacting their friend. But this kind of behaviour did still continue for a significant proportion of men.

Perpetrator programmes can allow men who are ready to choose to stop using violence and abuse in relationships to take steps towards change. Sometimes these will be tiny steps, sometimes they will be great leaps. For most of the women and children in our research, lives were improved to some degree.

Can a leopard change its spots? No, because a leopard is born with spots, it does not make the choice to continue to have them. Men are not born violent, they derive benefits from not being held accountable for their use of violence and abuse, and just as they make decisions about other areas of their lives, they can choose to stop being violent and abusive. Perpetrator programmes can help them make those changes.

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