Put your fists down: learn to talk: Violent men were often damaged as children. How can they reform? Angela Phillips reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Hoardings across London scream out the message over a picture of a man behind bars: 'there are no words to justify violence against women, only sentences', and 'domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crime'. The poster is part of the Zero Tolerance campaign against domestic violence, launched last month by the Association of London Authorities with the Metropolitan Police.

Perhaps the shock tactics are necessary, but the other three-quarters of violent crime is almost entirely violence by men against men, and it is the experience of violence, early in their lives, that so often makes men violent themselves.

Luke Daniels is a counsellor at the Everyman Centre in south London, one of a handful of places in the country that specialise in helping men renounce violence. Mr Daniels is not sentimental about the issue but he is uneasy about the Zero Tolerance campaign.

'Most violence out there is against men, but the whole campaign sets it up that it is men against women, that men are bad, men are violent, and women are victims. This isn't challenging the stereotyped vision that boys have about men. Society has to change its attitudes toward men and that has to start by a look at the damage we do socialising our children.'

Mr Daniels has the shaved head of a street fighter but a gentle, Caribbean accent that inspires instant confidence. He used to be a maintenance engineer and political activist. Then, 12 years ago, he hit his wife. He hadn't done it before and he hasn't since, but when it happened, he knew he had to change something deep inside: 'I had always looked down on men for hitting women. Amongst my peers, there was a sense that you don't hit women because to do so would be demeaning. So when I hit her I felt bad, I hated myself, I had never felt like that before.'

It was the turning point. His friends were appalled and his wife left. He looked for help and in doing so, learnt that hitting women is not about lack of chivalry, or loss of control, but abuse of power. It wasn't an easy journey.

Therapy is overwhelmingly white and middle class and it was hard for a black man to share feelings of fear and shame, stemming from his own childhood, with a white professional. Mr Daniels' journey took him through co-counselling and training as a counsellor.

Men come to the Everyman, often travelling for many miles. Sometimes they have been pushed into seeking help by an ultimatum from their partners, more often it is because they want to change and don't know how. They are a mixed bunch, varying in age from 21 to over 50, about 40 per cent unemployed and almost a third black - possibly because Mr Daniels is one of the few black men in the country trained as a counsellor.

The majority of the men who come through the centre have experienced violence as children, often from their own parents. Usually they have dismissed this as 'punishment which they deserved'. 'As children we stop boys from expressing their feelings,' Mr Daniels says. 'And then later we punish them for expressing themselves in the only way they know how - through violence. I spend time with them looking at where they were hurt before, and then giving them new communication and listening skills, so that they can learn to use language about the way they feel instead of using violence.'

Men who are used to deflecting emotion by laughing, or cracking a joke, find themselves exposing feelings they had learnt to cover up many years before. But, though they are helped to find reasons for their behaviour they are not allowed to turn them into excuses. From day one the centre makes it clear that there is never any excuse for violence.

Until now the centre has dealt only with self-referrals and it has a long waiting list. However, with a claimed success rate of 90 per cent (no longer violent) the Everyman has attracted the attention of the probation service for possible co- operation. But the interest may be too late. As the Zero Tolerance campaign posters spread, demanding an end to violence against women, this centre, one of the very few providing free access to counselling for violent men, may close due to lack of funding.

(Photographs omitted)

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