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'Sometimes coercive control looks like love':  Teens must be taught about domestic abuse, say activists

“This Valentine’s Day, let’s learn about coercive control” read the giant card delivered to Number 10 Downing Street

The activists behind the Make It Mandatory campaign group calling for education on domestic abuse for all teenagers. Left to right: Ithar Ghalifa, Jasmine Godden Melendez, Faustine Petron, Darius Smith. Image: Eliza Pitkin / The Big Issue

Domestic abuse survivors are calling on the government to bring in mandatory teaching of coercive and violent relationships for sixth-formers.

Posing with a giant Valentine’s Day card, campaigners from women’s charity Refuge and activists at Make It Mandatory hand-delivered a petition of 90,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street calling for urgent action. 

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The campaign follows a week of horrifying stories of violence against women and girls, including the sentencing of serial rapist David Carrick, a Met Police officer who committed crimes for 17 years before he was stopped, and the murder of headteacher Emma Pattison and her seven-year-old daughter Lettie, who were believed to have been shot dead by their husband and father, who then killed himself.

“Sometimes coercive control looks like love,” Faustine Petron, founder of the Make It Mandatory campaign told The Big Issue. Petron was in an abusive relationship from the age of 16 to 20 and her ex-partner went to prison for the offences he committed. 

“If I knew what a healthy relationship looked like, and how a person acts in a healthy relationship, perhaps I could have exited that relationship sooner”, she said. 

“We are offering the government a very easy solution to a massive issue that affects millions of young people… it’s a preventative measure so things don’t escalate.” 

Less than half of young people aged 16 to 19 said they had received, or were due to receive, education about healthy relationships at their sixth form or further education college, according to recent polling by Opinium.

Ruth Davidson, chief executive of Refuge, told the Big Issue: “There are more and more horrendous stories of domestic abuse being perpetrated with seeming impunity even by members of the police force. 

“This is something we have to eradicate by acting early on, educating young people and equipping them to know what is, and isn’t, safe, and what is, and isn’t acceptable.”

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Existing legislation requiring schools to teach pupils about relationships and abuse is patchy, says Davidson. While sixth forms attached to schools are required to provide this education, all other sixth forms and further education colleges are not, meaning many students miss out. 

The government vowed to tackle misogyny in schools after the murder of Sarah Everard sparked a national call for better education, but a year after her death, in March 2022, teachers said progress in schools was still lacking. 

Darius Smith, who has also worked on the Make It Mandatory campaign, highlighted the importance of inclusivity in the education they are calling for. 

“There is a lot of weight put on women and girls – as there should be because disproportionately this happens a lot more to them, however this still happens to men, non-binary people, trans people, and there needs to be education about that as well,” he told The Big Issue.

“We really need to make this mandatory, this isn’t even a question anymore. Once this is put into policy, whenever this happens, this will genuinely change people’s lives.”

The Department for Education spokesperson said: “Domestic violence is a horrific crime. To help children and young people learn about healthy relationships early on we have made age-appropriate Relationship, Sex, and Health Education (RSHE) lessons in schools compulsory, so that by the time they leave school they are familiar with these challenging issues.  

 “Schools and post-16 providers should be alert to issues such as everyday sexism, misogyny, and gender stereotypes and take positive action to build a culture where these are not tolerated, and any occurrences are identified and tackled.

“We will be publishing further non-statutory guidance later this year to provide practical advice on how to create a whole-school culture of respectful relationships, and how to teach about sexual harassment, sexual violence and violence against women and girls.”

@thebigissue

Meet the campaigners that are urging the government to make it mandatory for all six forms and colleges to teach students about violent and controlling relationships #endabuse#domesticabuseawareness#fyp#politicsequality@@Refuge

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