The first ‘Festival of Practice’ conference was held by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner of England and Wales in Manchester on 28/29 March 2023, an event that sought to bring examples of innovative and good practice from across our two countries.
It was here that Cohort 4 were invited by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office to present our work around peer mentoring with women surviving abuse who have disabilities or multiple disadvantage. Cohort 4 have been delivering our peer mentoring and peer support groups in Warwickshire, England, for approaching ten years and it was a pleasure to contribute to the conference session that felt full of hope and optimism for women who survive abuse and experience mental ill health and/or physical disability.
A long history of women supporting women in communities
The act of women coming together to support each other has a rich history across the globe. Women’s spaces provide vital community places where mutual understanding and shared experiences can help women to heal and to recover their self-confidence and emotional independence following trauma (Tutty et al, 2017; Gilbert, 2020). Many such groups are invisible, operating at grass roots level with little funding nor recognition. However, the impact of peer mentoring within such organisations can be substantial to individual women and their children who may need kindness and practical support. Some might suggest that in the interests of professionalisation and elevation of the domestic abuse support sector we may have lost some of this peer support work in the name of process and protocols. However, there is room I believe for both approaches in the interests of assisting women to survive their experiences of domestic violence and with those who have additional disadvantages. Many women need longer term support in a community group where they feel safe and where they feel that they belong.
What is strong? rather than what is wrong? Most of our women group members at Cohort 4 experience an intersection of inequality, past abuse, discrimination, exclusion, and a lack of opportunity. We believe that women face a range of inequalities and abuse throughout their lives and that creating a women’s safe space is essential for healing. Cormac Russell argues for asset based community development (Russell, 2020), looking for the strengths and attributes of both individuals and their community. At Cohort 4 we formed a women’s organisation based on the premise that women surviving domestic abuse have strengths, specialist knowledge and substantial capacities to help each other within a community.
In addition to peer led social support groups, we formed a one to one peer mentoring model that provides kind, gentle support, advocacy, confidence raising and encouragement. This peer mentoring approach ensures that a woman can access the health support she is entitled to, she can be assisted to acquire state benefits, safe housing or simply to leave her home to enjoy her own community and feel confident in herself as a woman and in her community. There are peer mentors at Cohort 4 with a range of professional and personal experiences that are helpful in our community of women.
Peer mentoring with women surviving abuse
Whilst women’s one to one peer mentoring has been successfully used in business, in education, and some mental health support services for example, we haven’t seen much of this used with survivors of domestic violence or those who experience disability or have multiple and complex disadvantages. I am writing up my doctoral thesis examining this specific area of community practice where women voluntarily attend women’s groups in England and engage in one to one peer mentoring recovery work. To deliver peer mentoring safely for peer mentor and mentee is a challenge, there needs to be the supporting supervision and guidelines in place to maintain safety and boundaries in this precarious role. Precarious because you are neither a professional nor a friend, you are in a very special space between these aspects of community support. However, there is great potential and a sense of optimism in this approach. Seeing a fellow survivor of abuse thrive in a peer mentor role is highly motivating for a woman who has had her self-confidence and wellbeing crushed by an abusive partner. Peer mentoring can generate possibility of recovery, of regaining strength and importantly, it illustrates hope.
Cohort 4 have delivered our accredited peer mentoring training to women’s peer support and peer mentoring organisations in England and with SOAR in Malta and we would love to connect with women peer mentoring groups across Europe.
If you are such a group, we can be contacted at email@example.com.
Beverley Gilbert, Founder, Operations & Risk Manager Cohort 4.
Individual Member | Senior Lecturer in Violence Prevention, University of Worcester, UK
Gilbert, B. (2020) ‘Exploring the experiences of domestic abuse survivors working in the field of domestic abuse support: assisting recovery or re-victimisation revisited?’ in Journal of Gender Based Violence, Vol.4(1), p:73-87.
Russell, C., (2020) Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space. Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books.
Tutty, L., M., Ogden, C., Wyllie, K., and Silverstone, A. (2017) ‘“When I’d Dealt with My Issues, I was Ready to Give Back”: Peer Leaders Perspectives of Support Groups for Women Abused by Intimate Partners,’ Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, Vol. 26(2) p:155-174.