Over the past year, Fermanagh Women’s Aid has collaborated with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to deliver training and awareness to South West College Hair and Beauty students in Understanding Domestic and Sexual Violence and providing insight into how they can be instrumental in supporting victims.

Ahead of the Fermanagh Women’s Aid Conference on Coercive Control hosted at the Lough Erne Resort last week, Training Coordinator for Fermanagh Women’s Aid Michelle Alonso and Superintendent Clive Beatty, PSNI District Commander for Fermanagh and Omagh, spoke to The Impartial Reporter about this pioneering initiative.

“This is an initiative that myself and Clive are working on and is funded by the Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSP). We wanted to target those that would have first access to women who experience domestic violence and we found that hairdressers and beauticians in particular have a very close intimate relationship and have built up a trust with their clients,” said Ms. Alonso. Ms. Alonso explained that hairdressing and beauty salons are places that perpetrators of domestic violence don’t usually want to sit around. She added: “This is where we’ve found that women really have the opportunity to speak to their hairdresser and have tended to do so.”

With the enhanced training they provide, Ms. Alonso and Superintendent Beatty aim to help Hair and Beauty students understand what domestic and sexual violence is, so that when a disclosure happens, they recognise it and know how to respond appropriately and offer support.

Fermanagh Women’s Aid have also provided in-house training on understanding domestic and sexual violence for established beauticians and hairdressers. Ms. Alonso commented that 100 per cent of the hairdressers and beauticians that attended the training session confirmed that they had had disclosures of domestic abuse in the salon. She added: “They had said that if I had asked at the start of the session if any of them had had domestic or sexual violence disclosures, they would have said no, however after the training and after they had heard about coercive control, every one of them said yes, I’ve had that.”

To highlight how subtle coercive control can be, Ms. Alonso listed some example disclosures:

“‘He’s telling me what to do with my hair,’ or ‘he’s telling me he doesn’t like it like this,’ ‘he’s telling me to wear this,’ ‘he’s telling me not to speak to other men,’ ‘he’s telling me not to go out,’ ‘if I do go out, he sulks.’ These are all traits of coercive control.”

She added: “I would say you will not have the other types of violence without coercive control being right at the crux of it. It’s right at the backbone of all of it.”

Explaining that Northern Ireland is the only place in the United Kingdom and Ireland that doesn’t have specific laws against coercive control, Superintendent Beatty said: “Although we don’t have the law about coercive control, it’s not always about the criminal justice route for the victim, it’s more about the first step to the journey of freedom.”

Talking about his work with Ms. Alonso and Fermanagh Women’s Aid in delivering Level 2 OCN endorsed training in Understanding Domestic and Sexual Abuse to frontline officers across Fermanagh and Omagh over the last 18 months, Superintendent Beatty said: “The training package that Michelle designed and got accredited teaches the officers to see beyond the physical violence because I think that when police arrive at the door and someone presents with physical injuries, I think we are actually quite good at what we do.”

He continued: “But when officers attend and can’t see the abuse because it’s hidden, because it’s silent, it’s coercive control, when they can’t see that, that’s a real challenge for them.”

Superintendent Beatty commented that although many officers weren’t fully aware of what coercive control was, now that they have completed the training they understand.

“They now can see past the silence, they can see the inner abuse. We are still a little bit hamstrung in that we don’t then have the criminal justice route but as I said at the start, it’s not always about the criminal justice route. The officers now have the enhanced knowledge and understanding of domestic and sexual violence and they can now take a different route.”

He added: “It’s about that collaboration with all the agencies, all of the community and all of the victims to actually eradicate domestic abuse.”