Today there has been a potentially big breakthrough in terms of domestic violence and the legal position of victims in the UK. Sally Challen, who was convicted of murdering her husband, has had permission for a retrial. The case for this was due to the change in UK law, with the significant change of coercive control being added to the domestic violence definition in 2015 inspired by the seminal work of Professor Evan Stark. This was four years after Sally Challen’s conviction. So she will now have the chance for a retrial, arguing for manslaughter on the grounds of coercive control being a significant factor in her circumstances. The campaign for Sally Challen has been spearheaded by her son, David, who has campaigned tirelessly, and continues to do so. Their cause has been backed by all the major feminist domestic violence support and policy agencies, many of whom have been outside the court for the last two days, willing for this chance to put the law into practice and to see this case differently in light of coercive control.
(Photo source: Sky News)
As I have been reflecting on this tonight, I thought about David as a child survivor of domestic abuse. This brought my mind to two other significant voices who campaign as child survivors of DVA, and these are Luke and Ryan Hart. I bought their book, Operation Lighthouse, recently and read through it with dismay and sadness and they told their story of the tragic murder of their mother and sister by their father, a pinnacle of domestic abuse. I was struck by their bravery in telling it, their raw honesty, their spirit to keep on fighting. They too campaign tirelessly to raise more awareness about the dynamics of domestic abuse and the devastating impact it can have if left unchecked.
This challenges my thoughts firstly that child survivors are a less heard group, as these examples are very visible and are making waves to influence wider policy. It has come at a time where there has been research coming through that centres children as experiencing violence, rather than witnessing it on the periphery (Callaghan, Alexander, Sixsmith, & Fellin, 2015). This is important and validating. The visible voices of these sons of domestic abuse also challenges the perspective that men who experience domestic violence as children are even more seldom heard. It is such a sea change that people who experienced DVA as children are speaking out like this. When I think of it, I can’t think of equivalent women who are sharing their experiences from the child’s perspective in such a way. I wonder why? What is holding them back?
I think the more men who experienced DVA in childhood speak out like this, it can only benefit the movement. There is often polarisation between those who take the side of female victims, those who are promoting the needs of male victims. I can feel the tension among the students I teach, who when I mention DVA in the news they quickly want to interject, men can suffer too, what about the male victims. But the thing with child survivors is that there is likely to be as many boys as girls in homes where DVA is happening. Research suggests they may cope with it differently, or situate themselves differently around it, but they are all there, experiencing it somehow. So male child survivors speaking out are not just ‘allies’ to feminist goals, they are victims in their own right, speaking for their own injustices that have affected them and loved ones.
This challenges society’s notion of the typical DVA victims as not only are these men not frail women with broken spirits, the type that Little Mo from EastEnders typified so long ago. These are clear, open, confident men who are getting their message across.
I welcome the increased diversity of voices. I really welcome these campaigners who are willing to be open about their story, to share their wounds to help others, to show what its like. That takes a lot more courage than many of us would have. I also think the gender balance of voices, who can claim as much authenticity and right to speak as other victims is important. Some men who have been high profile in the DVA movement have been side-lined somehow, seen by some as not able to be feminists but only allies. But as more children of DVA speak out there will be more understanding of the wider ripples that DVA makes into the family, affecting men and women, girls and boys.
Today is an important day. I wholeheartedly hope this is the start of the process for vindication and release for Sally Challen. And may the media focus on these cases give others strength who are still living with DVA, victims, daughters and sons.
Recommended reads from this blog
Operation Lighthouse: Reflections on our Family’s Devastating Story of Coercive Control and Domestic Homicide- by Luke and Ryan Hart
Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence)- By Evan Stark