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Why domestic abuse must be the central theme in primary children’s stories

While it's spoken of, hinted at and pointed to, domestic abuse isn’t often the main topic of a middle-grade children’s story. But here’s why it needs to be, says author Onjali Q Rauf...

  • Why domestic abuse must be the central theme in primary children’s stories

Sixteen suitcases. Each packed with the essentials: new pyjamas and slippers; a bath towel; a fully loaded toiletry bag filled with unscented goods and the mandatory toothpaste and toothbrush; a brand new mug, bowl and plate; a hot water bottle; new bedsheets – single; a packet of socks; a packet of underwear; a brolly; a woolly blanket; a flowery cushion, a blank-paged diary, and a brand new pen.

All the basics for a woman needing to restart her life again, in a place which can only offer her a bed for now, but which can at least promise it’ll be a bed she can feel safe in.

And on the floor, next to those 16 large suitcases, are seven children’s rucksacks. Packed with a more fun version of the above – along with sparkling glitter pens, toys and a brand new story book to call their own.

Because mothers fleeing for their lives will never leave their children behind. Not even if that means a lower chance of finding a bed for the night.

Twice a year, I get to deliver these gifts of pre-packed suitcases and rucksacks, rustled up by volunteers and donors, to women’s refuges I’ve come to know and love.

Two of the shelters won’t let me deliver directly, because I’m not a trained member of staff. Understandably. But one allows me to deliver direct to the door of where the women I’m hoping to serve are being cared for. And their children too.

The journey I make in my car to that shelter is always a slow one, for my head is filled with questions I can’t bear to have answered.

Who will I meet today? How many women will come to say thank you for gifts they shouldn’t never have needed? Who are those little rucksacks for – and what have they survived to get here?

I don’t often get to meet the children at the shelters we donate to, but when I do, or hear about their stories from the phenomenal frontline workers caring from them, I can’t help but wonder just why it is, ‘domestic’ abuse and violence in the home is still rarely spoken of.

Since January 2019, 90 women have been murdered by men – usually by a man they knew. But who among us can name a single one of those women? Or have heard about the children, families, loved ones they were forced to leave behind?

Because for some reason I can’t yet fathom, their names are never spoken of. The faces of those women will never be on the front pages of our newspapers. Their stories won’t be shared.

And if it wasn’t for women like Karen Ingala-Smith at the NIA refusing to be quiet about ‘it’, or the Centre for Women’s Justice crying out for perpetrators to be prosecuted, I wouldn’t know the true numbers either.

As someone who lost a beloved aunt to the crime that is ‘domestic’ abuse, it almost feels like an inevitability that The Star Outside My Window came to be written.

And I know that any story which centres on a child who has experienced the worst outcomes of ‘domestic’ abuse imaginable will inevitably make some parents and teachers hesitate. I fully understand that hesitation.

As an aunt and Godparent to little ones and hopefully a future mother one day, I too want to protect and shelter the little ones in my world from the bad and the ugly of humankind.

It’s almost an unspoken mission in life: to keep the knowledge of abuse, heartache, loss, grief, death and danger away from our children. Not unless they reach the age of inevitability.

But the tragedy is that for too many children, all of those painful words are already an inevitable part of their lives. And worse yet, they will believe those realities to be the norm.

According to Women’s Aid, at least 160,000 children in England alone are living in homes where they are witnessing and experiencing ‘domestic’ abuse right at this moment. That’s one in seven children.

While year after year, over 13,000 women, bringing with them over 14,000 children, are fleeing their homes in the hopes they can escape their abusers, only to find shelters gone or bed spaces no longer available.

These figures don’t even include the thousands of children being placed into care as a direct result of abuse at home.

Or the hundreds of children who, like my aunt’s two beautiful little girls, suddenly found themselves without a mother, and a father jailed for causing that new fact of their lives.

But just as abuse is a reality of lived experience, so too is it present in our most beloved children’s books.

Whether it’s Matilda, being abused not only at home by the awful Wormwoods but also by the gotta-hate-her Mrs Trunchbull; or Harry Potter – literally being shoved into a cupboard to sleep in and half-starved to death by the Dursleys, or Viola trying to escape the dastardly Count Olaf in the Unfortunate series, abuse is there in our children’s books.

It’s spoken of, hinted at, pointed to, highlighted and universally present – our children see the abusers, identify their actions as being wrong, empathise with the need to escape, and cheer and champion the moments when he or she finally gets their comeuppance.

In short, abuse of children by adults – and other children, in children’s fiction is nothing new. We just don’t talk about the fact that for some children sitting in our midst, the fictional abuse they’re glimpsing through the book they are holding might be hitting a little too close to home.

It’s time to change that and break the silence. Classrooms are the safest, most effective frontlines of long-term change.

The books my teachers read to me and introduced to me in our little reading corner of the classroom have never left me. From Goodnight Mr Tom to The Hobbit to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, my comprehension of right and wrong were bound to the stories I was gifted.

It’s the one hope I have for Aniyah in The Star Outside My Window: that her story will inspire all the Star Hunters reading it, to ask the questions that need to be asked, and propel new discussions about one of the biggest crimes perpetrated against women and children daily.

And maybe – just maybe, in some distant future, thanks to those Star Hunters and those discussions gifted to them by the teachers in their lives, there’ll be less suitcases and rucksacks that need to be packed.

Onjali Q Rauf is author of The Star Outside My Window (Hachette Children’s Group, £6.99).

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