Breaking the cycle of violence against women will mean change in attitudes

"TOM" (not his real name) is now 43. He was psychologically and sexually abused and beaten by people within his close family when he was a child. His parents were also violent towards each other. These experiences made Tom determined not to ill-treat others.

"But I did become this person I didn't want to be and thought I wasn't," he says. "I married a wonderful girl and at the beginning we were so happy. But in time I started to treat her badly – first of all with emotional abuse and blackmail. After that the physical stuff began. I think I took out all my feelings about my own suffering on her. I don't know how she put up with it, and I didn't deserve her, but after each episode I would be genuinely ashamed and sorry."

Tom and his wife had two children, but instead of parenthood settling Tom down, he continued to beat his wife regularly. "Drink was often involved, although I can't blame it on the booze. It lessens inhibitions, but it was only an accessory. I had this pressure cooker building up steam inside me, and drink made it a bit easier for the top to blow off. I felt terrible sorrow after hitting her, but the old traits sneaked back time after time."

Tom's wife never reported him to the police – perhaps for fear of splitting up the family – but matters came to a head 16 months ago. The children were becoming badly affected and their mother had to protect them, so she threw Tom out.

"That was really what I needed to make me wake up," he says. "I went to the GP and asked for help, and was told about the domestic violence charity STOP, which works with both male and female perpetrators of domestic violence to change their behaviour.

"I've been going there for a year, sitting in a circle with some of the most violent offenders in Yorkshire. There's no such thing as a cure, but I have learned to think of the consequences if I behave violently again and have been given mechanisms to stop myself before I get started. I have also given up drinking."

After more than a year apart, Tom's wife took him back a few months ago. "She stuck with me through thick and thin, but she wouldn't let me go home until I'd proven that I'd tackled the problem. Since going back, we have been happier than ever before. But many people had distanced themselves, including family members, and I still have to work at getting some of them to believe I've changed."

Tom continues to attend a weekly two-hour session run by Leeds-based and Lottery-funded STOP, which acts as a debrief on his week, and involves sharing feelings about abuse and reinforcing techniques for controlling anger, with other violent men, some of whom have been to prison due to domestic violence.

Today, if Tom feels the tight chest and rapid heartbeat that signal anger, he goes for a walk for half- an-hour to calm down. "It's awful to admit you were an abuser, but anyone can change if they want to," he says.

Later this month, Leeds will become the UK's first major city to be awarded White Ribbon status by the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement started in Canada, whose British arm is organised by Hebden Bridge-based Chris Green. White Ribbon is run by men to help put an end to violence against women, and the award to Leeds City Council is in recognition of the work undertaken across the city on domestic violence – a crime that is usually hidden from view unless a victim is brave enough to speak out or a perpetrator comes out and seeks help.

The council's Safer Leeds team is responsible for anti-domestic violence strategy, which includes improving services to women, developing community support and developing preventative and educational work.

"Domestic violence is a massively under-reported crime," says Michelle de Souza, head of the domestic violence team. "White Ribbon is about raising awareness among non-violent men and getting people talking about the problem. There is a lot of collusion – for instance, a group of men may know that their mate hits his wife and they disapprove but would never challenge.

"Male on male aggression is rewarded and male aggression to women is frowned upon, but in an abstract way. We need people to challenge the behaviour of abusive men."

An important element in public education on domestic violence lies in tackling the attitudes and behaviour of the young, says Dave Downs, a former miner and professional rugby player who later ran his own business employing 300 night club bouncers all over the country. He has never beaten his wife, but he says working on club security "inevitably" led him to become violent.

After two sentences for GBH totalling six years, he knew he would end up in prison again if he didn't change jobs. "I was luckily offered work as conditioning coach at Featherstone Rovers, and I specialised in wrestling techniques for rugby.

"While in prison I kept fit and was introduced to Tai Chi and Aikido. Aikido is not at all about aggression; it centres on calmness and concentration."

Through Featherstone Rovers and other rugby clubs, Dave was invited to work with groups of young men who needed to learn anger management, and Dave's regime is now in demand by schools and youth offending teams, to provide sessions to offenders given supervision orders rather than custodial sentences.

Dave has worked with schools in Leeds to widen awareness of the possible consequences of giving vent to aggressive feelings and teach anger management.

"I've done classes with kids who are on the verge of exclusion because of their violent behaviour and language," says Dave.

"Because of my background – and I'm not proud of it, but it does make them listen – they know I'm telling them the truth when I describe the reality of life in prison. It's not the 'doss' they think it is.

"I teach them about the benefits of martial arts in keeping them calm, and the positives they'll get from good nutrition, regular sport and listening to others. They learn new triggers, like bringing to mind what they would most hate to lose if they went to prison."

Youth Crime Reduction Officer Sergeant Bob Bowman says his work across the city, co-ordinating with police officers working in schools, is part of the city's work in changing the attitudes of some young people.

"There are some young men who have learned bad attitudes and they come to school and act abusively towards young women. Some young women collude by acting as though this behaviour is okay. Staff identify students who need to be made aware of the offensiveness of their words and actions. Sometimes a whole family is called in to discuss what's going on. We talk to problem teenagers about anger control and what 'reasonable' behaviour is. It seems hard to believe, but some young men don't know they are breaking the law when they sexually assault a young women in the corridor."

November 25 is International White Ribbon Day, http://www.whiteribboncampaign.co.uk/

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – FACTS AND FIGURES

In the UK...

45 per cent of women have experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

At least 32 per cent of children, mostly girls, experience some form of child sexual abuse.

At least 80,000 women suffer rape every year.

In a survey for Amnesty International, more than one in four respondents thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped

if she was wearing revealing clothing, and more than one in five held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.

On average, two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner. This constitutes nearly 40 per cent of all female homicide victims.

70 per cent of incidents of domestic violence result in injury (compared with 50 per cent of incidents of acquaintance violence, 48 per cent of stranger violence and 29 per cent of muggings).

Around 85 per cent of forced marriage victims are women.

Domestic violence is estimated to cost victims, services and the state around 23bn a year.

Between August 2009 and July 2010, West Yorkshire Police recorded 9,332 incidents of domestic violence.

70 per cent of domestic violence incidents result in injury. On

average, two women in England and Wales are killed each week by a partner or ex-partner.