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Why domestic abuse is every university’s business

Domestic violence and abuse can take many forms – most of which are usually invisible to those on the outside. But as something that takes place both in and beyond the home, universities have a role to play a role in safeguarding students and staff from this often frightening, debilitating and always dangerous experience.

Domestic violence is often more readily understood – and we often think of bruising and black eyes as tell-tale signs – but even these are often hidden. However, abuse can include emotional, sexual, economic and even technological abuse – which can leave the individual feeling trapped and helpless as many communications outlets (mobile phones, social media) are monitored or even removed.

This is why conversations on campus are so important.

Since lockdown hit, we’ve seen the numbers of those affected by domestic violence and abuse (DVA) jump significantly. A report from Universities UK, their second briefing on the topic entitled Continuing the Conversation, states that there has been a global surge in domestic abuse being reported during the pandemic, and that incidents have become more complex and serious. Additionally, the paper states that, according to Safe Lives, the majority of high-risk victims are in their 20s or 30s – making it very much an issue that is likely to have prevalence within student populations.

So what can higher education staff do to support students who could be suffering in silence and who could be facing a significant daily risk to their life?

Of course policies and training needs should be looked at. But in addition to this, it’s also helpful to have some more informal conversation starters or tools that all staff can use should the opportunity to engage a potentially vulnerable student arise.

Through my community interest company, CHAMPS for Change, we work in partnership with women’s empowerment charity, WE:ARE to deliver a six month programme facilitated by professional coaches who all volunteer their time. The programme is for women who are in ‘thrivership’ mode from experiencing DVA, these women have been working with WE:ARE for a significant period. The outcomes of this programme, which is now mid-way through its second roll-out, are currently being fed into a research paper to enable us to amplify the impact of this work.

As part of our work, CHAMPS for Change have developed a Compact Conversation webinar to enable organisations and their staff to understand DVA and start conversations with any students or colleagues who may be potentially vulnerable or in danger.

While the webinar goes into much more detail, the following conversation starters will give you a good idea as to the kinds of questions you can ask any students who may seem socially withdrawn, might be missing lectures or under-performing or who show reluctance with regards home-study. More broadly, these are conversations that can be had with any student who simply doesn’t seem their usual self.

Conversation starters:

· How are things at home?

· Is there anything else that could be affecting your health?

· You seem anxious, is everything alright at home?

· Is there anything else we haven’t talked about which might be contributing to how you are feeling?

Of course, should anything arise during these conversations that is of concern, your university safeguarding policy should be followed and the process activated as appropriate. But often, if we don’t start these conversations in the first place, we might not discover where there are serious DVA risks within our student population and therefore we won’t know to trigger safeguarding procedures.

In summary…

DVA takes many forms, and victim responses can often be unique. While exam stress or general COVID anxiety could be at the heart of your student’s out of character behaviour, it’s worth enquiring about the home environment to make sure there isn’t anything else going on. After all, whatever the cause, it’s important to understand more and discuss support and safety.

With communications channels being cut off or monitored, it may be that a student who is struggling feels unable to pen an email or update a social media status with what’s going on. All too often these experiences continue behind closed doors and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

So in the safety of the university campus, during a face to face, one-to-one discussion with your student, make sure you give them the opportunity for a safe space to open up about something that, under any other circumstance, they might feel silenced.

Article by Ruth Cooper-Dickson - Founder of CHAMPS for Change

CHAMPS for Change CIC will be accepting applications for an open coaching programme for women starting in Autumn 2021. If you are interested to find out more about this subsidised coaching programmer, please email


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