Mobilizing Communities to Prevent Domestic Violence

Melanie Shepard With contributions from Deborah Zelli

Mobilizing communities to prevent domestic violence involves engaging communities in supporting, developing, and implementing prevention strategies that target change in individuals, as well as in the community and society. Potential strategies include educating the community, building support among key stakeholders for prevention efforts, developing programs that strengthen social networks, organizing community groups to challenge social norms that contribute to the use of violence, and advocating for community accountability. Community mobilizing strategies hold the potential for transforming those social norms and structures that are the root causes of domestic violence. These strategies engage diverse segments of the community in promoting change and thereby enhance the long-term sustainability of prevention efforts. This document will place community mobilization within the context of the Battered Women's Movement, explore guiding concepts and frameworks for community mobilization, and discuss the challenges of implementing community mobilization strategies.

Historical Context

The roots of community mobilization strategies to address domestic violence date back to the Battered Women's Movement in the 1970's. The Movement organized women at the grassroots level to address domestic violence in their communities. It raised awareness about patriarchal social structures that promote domestic violence and highlighted the need for social change. Additionally, the Movement provided community-based resources in the form of shelters and support groups that empowered victims of domestic violence.

Over time, the Movement changed from a focus on community engagement toward working with individuals and systems. The Movement concentrated on reforming policies, legislation, and social institutions, particularly the criminal justice system. In the 1980's, coordinated community responses (CCRs), stemming from lessons learned by the Battered Women's Movement, focused on influencing changes at the institutional level. This approach emphasized community responsibility for addressing domestic violence. Many advocates worked with community agencies to transform policies and practices to increase offender accountability and victim safety (Pence & Shepard, 1999).

During the 1990's, many domestic violence programs' major focus was on providing direct services to survivors and offenders. Community initiatives often focused narrowly on practitioners coordinating with one another, particularly within the criminal justice system, and with limited outreach to the broader community (Mancini, Nelson, Bowen, & Martin, 2006). More recently, increasing dissatisfaction with this remedial focus has led to creative community mobilization initiatives that focus on prevention, particularly in communities of color (Douglas, Bathrick, & Perry, 2008; Kim, 2005; Mancini et. al., 2006). These community mobilization initiatives emphasize empowerment and development of grassroots community leadership. Community mobilization initiatives offer the potential to build support and promote change at the grassroots level to insure the long-term sustainability of this social change movement.

During the past decade, key agencies have played instrumental roles in promoting community-based prevention efforts at a national level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through the DELTA (Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancements and Leadership Through Alliances) project, has emphasized utilizing CCRs for promoting primary prevention. The DELTA project works with state domestic violence coalitions to increase the community capacity for implementing primary prevention strategies (Graffunder, Noonan, Cox, & Wheaton, 2004).   The Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) and the Institute for Community Peace (ICP) have undertaken broad initiatives to support and promote community engagement strategies that target violence prevention (Bowen, Gwiasda, & Brown, 2004; Mitchell-Clark & Autry, 2004). Community mobilization efforts have also been undertaken in other countries, such as Uganda (see Michau, 2007). In 2003, an online conference, ""Mobilizing Family, Friends & Neighbors to Prevent Domestic Violence"", was organized by the Close to Home Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative and included participants from 14 countries (Close to Home, 2003).

Guiding Concepts

Community mobilization strategies to prevent domestic violence are often grounded in public health prevention models, community organizing strategies, and/or strengths-based approaches, each of which uses its own terminology. Guiding concepts that frequently emerge in the literature include primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of prevention, informal and formal social networks , community assets , social capital, and community capacity . Each of these guiding concepts can be used to create and develop community mobilization initiatives.

According to Cohen, Davis and Graffunder (2006), ""Prevention is a systematic process that promotes safe, healthy environments and behaviors, reducing the likelihood or frequency of an incident, injury or condition occurring"" (p. 89). Prevention efforts are conceptualized as occurring at three different levels: primary (intervening before the violence occurs by removing the cause or preventing the development of risk factors), secondary (identifying risk factors and taking necessary actions before the violence occurs), and tertiary (treatment or rehabilitation after the violence has occurred to minimize its impact and to prevent repeated occurrences) (Chamberlain, 2008). Community mobilization efforts can target any of these three levels. Cohen et al. (2006) note that ""focusing on primary prevention is the only way to eliminate the violence"" (p. 90) and emphasize the importance of changing social norms that condone the use of violence. The challenge for prevention is in identifying effective strategies that reach out to community members where they live and work.

Domestic violence practitioners may find it useful to draw from the community development literature that focuses on community assets. Community assets include ""several forms of community capital; physical, human social, financial, and environmental"" (Green & Haines, 2002, p. 8). Community groups can assess the risk and protective factors in their communities and identify as well as build upon community assets that will promote healthy relationships. This approach lends itself to a focus on primary prevention because it emphasizes building upon and developing community assets and strengths rather than targeting needs and problems.

Strengthening informal social networks (one type of community asset) is a violence prevention strategy frequently discussed in the literature (Benard, 2007). Informal social networks consist of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other civic, religious, and community ties of a voluntary nature. Domestic violence intervention strategies focus on strengthening existing informal social networks or developing new ones through volunteer, peer support, and mentorship programs. These strategies target building healthy relationships to prevent violence from occurring in the first place, reduce isolation so that problems can be more quickly identified, and encourage community members to support one another in promoting nonviolence. In a review of the literature, Jack (2004) finds that there is ""convincing evidence that higher levels of social capital, in the form of social trust and active social networks, are correlated with a wide range of desirable social policy goals, including lower crime and child abuse rates, better health and educational attainment, longer life and improved economic performance"" (p. 377). Research on social support interventions has found that, while showing promise, they can be difficult to mobilize and sustain. While we know that social support benefits families, we are still in the early stages of determining how to create effective support systems that can prevent violence from occurring.

Finally, the concept of community capacity should be considered when undertaking community mobilization strategies. Community capacity ""consists of the social capital and formal and informal organizations that can be drawn on to reduce violence"" (Sabol, Coulton, & Korbin, 2004, p. 334). Building community capacity involves taking actions to promote positive change by drawing from a collective sense of responsibility and community resources (Mancini et. al., 2006). If primary prevention initiatives do not take into account the capacity of the community to support them, the initiatives may fail and community mobilization efforts will be undermined.

Models for Community Mobilization Prevention Initiatives

Empirical research on the effectiveness of community mobilization strategies to prevent violence remains limited. However, several initiatives have resulted in useful models and informative case studies that practitioners can use and adapt. Each of the models described below draw upon the guiding concepts previously discussed. These initiatives have documented promising practices and identified common themes that have emerged when undertaking community mobilization activities. Underlying each of them is the recognition that a multitude of strategies are needed to meet the unique needs of a specific community. While major themes are discussed here, further details about specific programs can be found in the references cited.

The Community Engagement Initiative

The Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) surveyed a variety of community-based programs engaged in community mobilization efforts to prevent different forms of family violence, including domestic violence. The approaches used by the programs included building on community assets, drawing upon cultural resources, and cultivating community leaders and informal social networks.

A handbook based on the lessons learned from the Community Engagement Initiative recommends that community engagement initiatives carefully assess community needs, set priorities, identify outcomes, and evaluate the effectiveness of their use of these strategies (Mitchell-Clark & Autry, 2004). This handbook also identifies the following five goals and recommends a variety of strategies for achieving these goals:

  1. Raise awareness of family violence and establish social norms that make violence unacceptable by publicizing family violence through using local media and events such as participating in community events, exhibiting at conferences, organizing special events, speaking at local colleges; collaborating with faith communities; and engaging men in speaking out against domestic violence.
  2. Develop networks of leaders within the community through seeking out non-traditional leaders, encouraging youth leaders, identifying leadership roles for men, recruiting at community meetings, providing training, developing teams, and sharing power.
  3. Connect community residents to services and informal supports when they need help by creating stronger connections to formal services, creating community-based advocacy networks, and strengthening informal supports. Community groups can work with agencies to offer services that are culturally relevant and responsive to the needs of domestic violence survivors, which families, friends, and neighbors can be engaged in advocating for and supporting domestic violence survivors.
  4. Make services and institutions accountable to community needs by advocating for changes in pubic policy and how social institutions respond to domestic violence.
  5. Change social and community conditions that contribute to violence through forming coalitions with other advocacy groups to promote social change on a number of fronts. Framing domestic violence as a social justice issue that is connected to other social problems, such as poverty, access to health care, and immigrant women's rights can strengthen advocacy efforts (Mitchell-Clark & Autry, 2004).

The Community Engagement Continuum

The Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence (API) conceptualized the Community Engagement Continuum based on the information collected from innovative programs across the country. According to Kim (2005), the following four points on the continuum are ""defined by the level to which the strategies used lead to increases in the community's capacity to transform relations of power""(p.1).

Distribution Rights

This Applied Research paper and In Brief may be reprinted in its entirety or excerpted with proper acknowledgement to the author(s) and VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, but may not be altered or sold for profit.