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Collaboration for Change

“Life is not a competition between men and women, it is a collaboration.’
David Alejandro Fearnhead

Collaboration for Change

In around the last year I have had the privilege of volunteering with a group who support men who have been subjected to domestic violence, called Men’s Alliance. This has been an enriching experience for me and one which I value highly. I have faced the challenge of being the only woman in the room while some pretty horrific acts of violence perpetrated by women were described. I have sat with groups of men who have been left devastated with symptoms of trauma because of the behaviour of individual women. I have to admit that at times I have felt uneasy and worried that the men may not like me because I am a woman and a woman has hurt them. The reality has been very different from my fears.

One evening this summer I agreed to facilitate a walking group for Men’s Alliance Support Group MANI alongside a male co-worker, but my co-worker had to pull out on the day of the event due to a family commitment. I am embarrassed by it now, but I have to admit that I was nervous going along as a lone female facilitator in case the males in the group did not take kindly to my presence. In actual fact they received me with a warm welcome and we had a very positive evening. Reflecting on this now, I have to ask myself why I would assume that men and women are somehow polarised. Are we really living our lives in some sort of competition that would cause people to point score against me due to the existence of female perpetrators of abuse?

In the past few days I have been disheartened to see women on MumsNet pulling apart a Men’s Alliance post claiming that there is underlying misogyny in a post sharing some data about men who experience abuse. As a woman I just don’t see it that way. Men’s Alliance have never implied that more men are abused than women and they have never sought in any way to undermine the work of any organisation sup-porting women who experience abuse. All that they have said is that in society there are some men who experience domestic violence. As a human being and as a social worker I can bear witness to the fact that this is absolutely true. Asking for a proportionate support does not mean that any one is devaluing the experience of others.

I don’t understand how anything can get better for anyone if men and women try to cut each other down when they ask for help. My relationships with men have been some of the most important of my life. The most obvious example is my marriage, I can’t think of any aspect my life where a spirit of collaboration between male and fe-male is more important. We can not get through a single day of raising our children without constant teamwork, nor can we survive financially without each other’s earnings. This for me highlights a key truth, working class people need each other. To take the view that the sexes can live in competition with each other is evidence of privilege that does not exist for the majority of people. In the charitable sector, where resources are so scarce, it is vitally important that all organisations learn to work together in the spirit of collaboration, otherwise charities will fold and nothing will get better for the people we support.

In my life I have had enduring friendships with a couple of men that have become vital to my feeling like I have a chance of keeping going in life. I have a friend called Ed-ward who I met when I was at university. Now we are in our forties and Edward lives in London and I live in Northern Ireland. We have both gone on to get married and build separate lives – but Edward shares a timeless part of me that I don’t want to lose. He has watched me change from a teenager to a middle aged woman. He knows my thoughts on pretty much every topic and he has seen me at my best and my worst. He was kind enough to agree to act as one of my bridesmaid( we called him a ‘bridesman’ ) on my wedding day and he was a vital part of the wedding going smoothly. Before that, when my Dad died suddenly in 2005, Edward came over from London to stay with my Mum, my sister and myself on the first weekend after the funeral and he gave us the stablising presence of someone who wasn’t totally broken down in the house at the moment when the world seemed terrifying and unbearable. He didn’t decide to stay away because we are all women, he faced down the devastation with us in the spirit of solidarity.

A few years ago I suffered a clinical depression and needed to be treated with medications and talking therapies. I don’t have words to tell you how awful it is to have depression. it isn’t just feeling a bit sad or down and then getting over it. It is a dangerous and serious illness where your life unravels in front of you and you feel absolutely nothing. Unless you have felt the pervasive nothing that depression brings, you can not imagine how deep the suffering is. The inexpressible pain of mental illness is excruciating. At this time my friend John stood shoulder to shoulder with me and he still does. I have been friends with John since I was at school and throughout my de-pression he was there, quietly watching over me. Friends are essential to survival when your mental health breaks down, because your family are very busy picking up the slack that you drop in day to day life as you struggle to function. John quietly checked in with me while I waded though custard trying to be a person again and he now notices the changes in me the might mean I am getting depressed again. This summer I took some annual leave from work because I was feeling drained by working for the NHS in the pandemic and John made a point of meeting me at a garden centre and checked in to ensure that I was ok. At all times I know that he is around and I can send him a message if I need to talk. He has never taken the attitude that because we are of opposite sexes that we can’t face the challenges of life in the spirit of solidarity.

If I took the attitude that men and women are somehow in competition, I would be without an intimate partnership, I’d have financial issues in terms of providing for the children, I would have faced the worst weekend of my life without the strengthening presence of friendship and I would lack a trusted friend to watch over my continued recovery from depression. That’s not to say that there are no women who would do the things for people, but the proven fact is I choose to collaborate with men as well as women in life and the results have been wonderful.

I often see references online to human rights as a pie. The concept is that if some-one else is given their rights, you do not lose your rights, because it isn’t a pie. I like this view of things very much and I feel that it applies to domestic violence in a very concrete sense. To say that there is a need to provide supports for men who are abused does not in any way mean that women are being vilified or that the experiences of females who are abused are undermined. It simply means that there is a problem and if we stand together, we can deal with it. In the case of domestic violence, dealing with it makes things better for everyone – men, women and children. There is no benefit at all to turning a blind eye to even a small group of men being abused and not getting the help they need. It is bad for people’s mental heath, it is bad for their kids and it does the human family no favours if the Edwards and Johns of this world are wiped out by trauma and abuse.

We all need each other. We are not all billionaires who can live life in splendid isolation and pay for high end therapy. We can not form perfectly sealed off bubbles where we don’t impact on each other. Most of the time most of us are just struggling to get through life and in order to do that we need to look out for each other. So when we meet with members of the opposite sex who need help to overcome abuse, we need to set aside the idea that there is any competition, veiled or unveiled and collaborate to make things better for everybody. There’s nothing else for it.