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How to Recognize Systemic Domestic Violence?

With the aim to implement systemic domestic violence prevention measures and prevent serious physical and psychological consequences of the experienced violence, it is important to identify the features of systemic violence as early as possible and take respective actions. In other words, it is important that social workers are able to recognise power and control strategies used by the perpetrator to intimidate and control the victim and manipulate the system.

The perpetrators wishing to control the situation and make the victims submit use different power and domination tactics that intimidate, control and supress the will of the partner. The experts of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project call these tactics the Power and Control Wheel [1], escape from which is possible only with the external help.

With the aim to control the victim, the perpetrator:

Resorts to force, intimidation (says that he/she will do something, leave, commit a suicide, tell the services, forces to drop the charges or do illegal things);

Threatens (intimidating looks, actions, gestures, breaking things, damaging the property of a victim, abusing pets, demonstrating weapons);

Uses emotional violence (humiliates, reinforces low self-esteem, makes the partner think that she/he behaves inadequately, humiliates, makes feel guilty);

Isolates (controls what she/ he is doing, who he/ she is meeting, to whom she/ he is talking, what he/ she is reading, where the partner is going, limits external contacts, the perpetrator explains his/ her actions by jealousy);

Denies, downplays the committed crime, shifts the blame on the victim (mitigates the scale of violence, does not care that she/ he is concerned, denies former violence, shifts the responsibility, claims that violence was provoked);

Manipulates children (makes feeling guilty for children, uses children to pass on the messages or to stalk the victim, threatens to take the children away);

Abuses male privileges (treats women as servants, makes decisions on his own, behaves as if he is the “ruler of the castle”, distributes male and female roles on his own);

Uses economic violence (prohibits to work, makes ask for money, takes the money away, restricts from information on the family budget or family income).

When used together all these power and control strategies enable unstoppable psychological terror, which, if the “victim” tries to escape, turns into physical and sexual violence.

Power and Control Wheel


Child protection specialists should pay particular attention to the perpetrators’ tendency to manipulate children. This would help to avoid cases when the perpetrator uses institution’s functions for his or her goal to control and penalise victim. Professionals are responsible for assessing the true causes of threats to the well-being of the child: is it an irresponsible mother’s behaviour or domestic violence? By protecting the victim specialist can also protect the child’s interests. Identification of true perpetrator’s aims leads to effective assistance.

The concept of child well-being is based on the view that children are best placed to grow with both parents. However, this provision cannot be applied when one of the parents (most often the father) in the family uses violence against another (most often the mother). The child’s safety must be given priority, but this can be secured only if the mother is protected from violence.

Both the situation and reaction to it should be treated critically by professionals. The public associate different expectations (including child care) for women and men, so one and the same behaviour can get different ratings.

We are accustomed to delegate the main responsibilities of child custody to women. In the public space (for example, in advertisements), we see many reminders that a good mother should take care of her child 24/7. According to such cultural norms, no woman can feel good enough mother, because these requirements simply cannot be met. Therefore, when the difficulties arise, society tend to blame women for not being good enough mothers (for example, failing to ensure the safety of children).

Meanwhile, men who care for children in our society are still perceived as a positive exception. Therefore, any action the perpetrator (for example, the desire to see children more often) may be wrongly classified as evidence of responsible parenthood, forgetting the fact of violence against the child’s mother.

The perpetrator is well aware of the expectations gap between men and women and is not shy to take advantage of the child protection specialists (e.g. by filing complaints slandering woman against whom uses violence) in order to further intimidate and chase and injured children.

In these circumstances, all cases need to be carefully assessed. It is important to keep in mind that in order to protect children, it is first and foremost important to ensure the safety of their mothers.


Personal injury is not the main feature distinguishing conflict from systemic violence in the case of domestic violence. During a dispute, the physical contact resulting with injuries might occur. Therefore, with the aim to assess the situation better it is important to focus on the power dynamics between the both parties. It might be balanced or based on domination.

Comparison of power dynamics during conflict and systemic violence (ex.) 

Conflicts are one-off and not regular, both partners might initiate them as well as discuss, whereas the discussion changes the behaviour of a person who provoked the conflict. The instigator of a conflict feels responsible for what has happened. When partners know each other better, the likelihood of a conflict diminishes, as it is the problem of both partners that take into account each other’s view. The conflict is a spontaneous reaction which (most often) is provoked by external factors (disappointment, fatigue, fear). The damage done during the conflict might be restored, the decisions aim at improving relations.

Systemic violence, on the contrary is a regular one. The roles of the aggressor and the victim do not change, therefore such relations cannot be successfully discussed, the discussion on this issue does not bring any changes, violence intensifies all the time. This coercive behaviour is exercised due to economic, social, cultural or physical power misbalance, therefore the perpetrator does not assume the responsibility and blames the victim. Such relations recognise the one approach only, that of a stronger person and the decision to resort to violence is a conscious one. One cannot just forgive for the damage done as in this case the crime is committed, the problem can be solved only by resorting to external measures: law enforcement, the intervention of different institutions, divorce, therapy and self-help, with the aim to overcome the way the victim is feeling – helplessness, fear, self-blame.