The perpetrator sector is unique, in that a great number of the people delivering and leading the work are women, and the majority of service users are men. The work is incredibly specialist, and can be emotionally complex and challenging for the highly skilled workforce delivering it. So why do women do this work? Why is it important for them to be at the centre of this sector? 

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we spoke to four women working at Respect about how they joined the sector, the challenges they’ve faced, and why they think women need to be at the forefront of this work. 

Today, Amy Hewitt, Practice Advisor on the Drive Partnership, tells us why she started working with perpetrators, and how her commitment to creating a more equal world has fed into every part of her life, including her parenting.

Why and how did you start working in the perpetrator sector ?

I first became interested in the perpetrator sector because the victims and survivors I was working with were saying they wanted their partner to have access to perpetrator interventions. They felt like there was a lot of pressure on them to seek support, but that their partner, who had been behaving abusively, got away without making any changes. Some women said their partner wanted the help, but it just wasn’t available.

I first got involved with perpetrator work as a partner support worker, so I was one of the people working with the survivors whose partner was taking part in a programme. I then made the transition to work with the perpetrators. From my first session working with them, my whole career path changed. It changed the way I think about domestic abuse, and how I think we need to respond to it. I remember someone saying to me that there's only so many times you can pull someone out of the river to help them before you shift your focus to the person pushing them in.

Do you think it’s important that women continue to play such a significant role in the perpetrator sector?

I think it’s important to have women in the room when you’re working with a group of perpetrators. From experience, they often see you has a proxy for the person they’ve been in a relationship with. Often, they’ll ask me whether I’m a victim of domestic abuse. Of course, that’s not something I discuss with them, but you can see them drawing parallels. I’m a big believer in using role play as part of perpetrator work, and there have been many times when I’ve been role playing an abusive dynamic with a male facilitator, and participants in the group will say “Don’t talk to her like that”, and I say “Why though? Why can’t he talk to me like that? How is that different from your situation?” By mirroring their relationship, we can dig into those misogynistic beliefs and behaviours, and create some real accountability and empathy.

Are there any challenges you have faced either working in the sector or before moving into it?

In my experience, there have been challenges around gender disparity in the sector. I often felt like men, who were less experienced than me, were moving up quickly through pay grades and into higher level positions in organisations delivering perpetrator work. I’ve found that in every sector I’ve worked in, but I think it was particularly hard when it happened in this sector, because of what we do and our focus on equality.

At the same time as that, I know I’m in a privileged position, in terms of my white privilege. There isn’t enough diversity in this sector, and that presents a huge challenge. How can we serve every part of society when our sector is predominantly white and middle class? That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be part of the Drive Partnership’s National Systems Change team: we’re taking some great first steps towards changing the sector for the better, but there’s so much more to do.

I think something we’re still swimming against (though it has changed a lot since I started this work) is the idea that working with perpetrators takes focus away from survivors. We’re asked “why are you focusing on them?”, and – in the early days – people were sometimes suspicious of my intentions, concerned that I was colluding with perpetrators by working with them at all. I understand their concern, but what I always emphasise, is that everything we do is about helping the survivor in the long run. Luckily, so much work has been done since I started out, and Respect has established itself as being very survivor-focused.

How do you care for your own wellbeing in a sector that can be emotionally complex and challenging?

People often ask me: how do you switch off? I’m lucky that, now I’m not working a frontline role, I just don’t have that feeling of burnout I used to have. That’s not to say it’s easy: I have clinical supervision and get lots of support to help me do my role, but I just don’t experience the same level of vicarious trauma. When you’re going through that you need people watching out for you, telling you to take a break.

In terms of the subject matter, I never switch off from that, and I don’t feel like I need to. Since I was in my second year at Uni, this has been my passion. I watch every documentary about it and read every book I can. It changes the way you view the world: I’m always on the look out for domestic abuse, coercive control, unhealthy masculinities. 

On a night out, I’ll be watching the way people interact, catching snippets of conversations, thinking “Is that a healthy conversation?” “Is that abusive?”. Even watching Love Island, my mum asked me if I watch it for a bit of escapism, and I thought “Let’s be real, you can’t escape it, it’s everywhere”. Being aware of it, and knowledgeable about it, has made me a better person, and a better mum.

How do you think it’s made you a better mum?

I have so many conversations with my little boy, who's 7, around consent, understanding male privilege, understanding how you treat people, how you communicate, how to articulate your feelings. I realised I’d been doing a good job when my little boy was at a kids’ party and people were play-wrestling, and he asked another child, “Am I OK to touch you?” before joining the fun.

What message would you like to share with other women working in our sector on International Women's Day?

We are awesome and strong and great role models. Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s making a difference!

Respect is a registered charity in England and Wales, number 1141636, in Scotland, number SC051284 and a company, number 7582438. Registered address: VAI Second Floor, 200a Pentonville Road, London N1 9JP
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