WEST Cork teens are being helped to recognise what abuse looks like in a relationship, thanks to an innovative project running in secondary schools.
Spearheaded by Lisa Culloty of the Bantry based West Cork Women Against Violence, it’s called ‘Know Your Worth.’
As well as going into schools with the teenage dating abuse programme, Lisa has also compiled an information packed booklet designed to show young people what's healthy, and what's not, in a relationship.
Lisa explains her motivation behind embarking on the ambitious project: ‘Previous to this I worked with domestic violence victims in Dublin and what really struck me a lot of the time, was that clients would say “if only I had known this information before about the dynamics abuse could take” or “if only we were taught this in schools.” It kept jumping out at me,’ she said.
She wanted to introduce a preventative measure, before teens potentially found themselves in this situation.
'What I try to help the teens understand is the difference between unhealthy behaviour and how it might move into something abusive and to know the warning signs.’
She helps teens move away from common abuse misconceptions such as ‘a bruised face or someone cowering in a corner.’
‘My priority is to show young people how subtle abuse can be and that it is not a stranger in the alleyway, that it’s a person who can be quite functional, quite nice and everything you want in a boyfriend, or girlfriend and that the changes slowly come in. I think a lot of them are a bit surprised by that.’
A lot of youngsters feel abuse will happen ‘elsewhere.’
‘They think it won’t happen near them, that it happens to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds; with poor education, or to someone who is naïve. They are surprised to hear that there are no factors that increase your vulnerability to an abusive relationship.
'Research shows that 95% of women will know someone in a domestic violent situation, so if it’s not you, it’s someone you know.’
Lisa further pointed out that 60% of people who experience domestic violence are under the age of 25.
‘There’s a high vulnerability in this group because for many it might be their first relationship and they’re at an age that fitting in is more important than having good physical, emotional or spiritual boundaries. You see a lot of people who will compromise because they want to stay in a relationship like their friends,’ she said.
‘Young people tend to think of extreme examples when it comes to abuse, but it can be far more subtle, and a lot of abuse is under the guise that “I care about you.”
‘Young girls particularly are very attracted to that because an idea is perpetuated to them that if they find a man to commit it’s the best thing in the world because men don’t want to settle down.
‘When they have someone that seems really, really in love with them it can feel like they’re the luckiest girl.’
She continued: ‘Sometimes it’s engrained, particularly for young girls, that they have to kiss a lot of frogs to get their prince.
'But at the end of the day you shouldn’t have to go through a bad relationship as a rite of passage.'
Young men equally need to understand they don’t have to feel a pressure to act in a certain way eg talking about women in derogatory ways, explains Lisa.
'While domestic abuse affects more women, young men need to understand their responsibilities but also need to realise that they could be in an abusive relationship too,' she pointed out.
Ignoring warning signs and staying in an abusive relationship is so damaging, Lisa warns.
‘Research shows that it only takes two cycles of abuse for someone to get entangled in a relationship and this is why the warning signs are so important. The message I get through to young people is that if you get entangled, this relationship could go on for a period of time and even if you get out in a year, or two years, the emotional scars and damage can mediate through the rest of your life.’
Lisa, at the outset of the project, conducted a focus group in Bandon and has since been in schools in Clonakilty, Ballingeary, Bandon and Castletownbere hosting two hour sessions and starting conversations. She'll continue to visit other schools going forward.
‘I was a bit surprised at how many of them felt they wouldn’t have gotten any information about this if I hadn’t come in.
'I’m not saying this is the golden rod that’s going to solve the issue, it’s a societal issue, but what we need to remember is that these young people are going to grow up, there’s no person that’s not going to navigate an intimate relationship, so having this information, could not be more important.
‘Every young person is going to open a bank account so shouldn’t they have the knowledge around that?
'But this is even more pertinent. It comes down to the fact that abuse is not ok, no matter what form it takes, or who is perpetuating it.’