Domestic violence: on the frontline of intersectionality

Provisions for those affected by domestic violence are in decline in the UK, but work in the area of domestic violence continues to be integral to the development of approaches to intersectional justice.  

Samir Jeraj
6 September 2013

Arguably, the first major legislative victory of second wave feminism in the UK was in 1976. Parliament passed the first law in the UK against domestic violence: The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976. This granted County Courts the power to issue exclusion orders and non-molestation orders in cases of domestic violence.

The battle against domestic violence is far from over. A month ago the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced an inquiry into why reports of domestic violence, child abuse and rape were falling. The focus is squarely on the police and whether they are doing enough to bring cases. Would it now be the time to call domestic violence an issue for intersectional justice?

Intersectionality is a concept from feminist theory which looks at the intersections between groups of oppressed peoples. Each person has multiple identities, shaped by history and social relations. Different combinations of these identities produce their own oppressions. The demand for intersectional justice may provide the analysis and a means to unite whilst recognising difference.

The current picture

So, why claim domestic violence issues are at the front line of the struggle? The answer is primarily because domestic violence services are under threat across the UK, specialist and non-specialist. openDemocracy’s 5050 surveyed the damage to domestic violence services at the end of last year, finding that in one extreme case Devon County Council proposed cutting its DV funding by 100%.

That situation is such that in the run up to the 2013 County Council elections Refuge released a survey showing high public support for domestic violence services. 70% of UK adults said Councils should continue to support domestic violence services. 81% of UK adults said it was important that there are specialist services run by women for female victims of abuse.

Race and domestic violence

The 2012 Womens' Aid survey of domestic violence services showed a disproportionate number BME women using their services (compared to the UK BME population). Yet, there is widespread mistrust of the Police, UKBA, and other authorities amongst BME populations. The long history of racism, particularly relating to the Police, is something that is widely observed in the research on community relations, and is a road block to tackling domestic violence.

According to Womens' Aid, there are specialist organisations providing support and services targeted at the Chinese, Eastern European, and South Asian communities. In 2008, one of these groups won a landmark legal ruling which changed the way public organisations dealt with equality. Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a group dedicated to providing specialist domestic violence services to Black and Asian women, won a case in the High Court against Ealing Council.

The issue was that the Council wanted to cut their grant to Southall Black Sisters. In defending the decision, the council pointed to the equality impact assessment required by law. This stated that rather than funding services specifically for Black and Asian women, the Council would fund a general domestic violence organisation (through a bidding process).  Southall Black Sisters took the Council to court on the grounds that the new scheme would disproportionately affect Black and Asian Women. By day two of the hearing in the High Court, Ealing Council had conceded and reversed their decision. In the decision recorded by the Judge, he notes a letter from Southall Black Sisters Chair Pragma Patel:

"not all women experience domestic violence in similar circumstances. Issues of racism, culture, language and immigration status, for example, make the task of accessing services much more harder for black and minority women. There is therefore a greater need for part of its specialist resources and staff."

The signals given out by central government are hopelessly confused. The Home Office can point to new laws on forced marriage, piloting Claire's Law, and acknowledging the rising issue of abusive relationships amongst teenagers. But on the other hand, domestic violence service cuts (often handed down via cuts to council budgets), closure of specialist courts, and the attitude of the Government towards migration are undermining any chance of progress. I can't imagine that an undocumented migrant suffering from domestic violence would see the government's 'Racist Van' and think that the authorities would be a safe place to seek help.

Faith and domestic violence

About a year ago I spent some time talking to domestic violence workers. One of them got talking to me about honour-based violence and explained to me that, contrary to the mainstream view in the media, this is not a problem confined to the Muslim community, or the Asian community (and there isn't just one 'community' in either of these cases). The same characteristics were widespread in some Christian communities, and presumably within other faith communities. It wasn't about culture, or religion, but power and patriarchy.

There are faith organisations which provide domestic violence services to women. Nour provides support and advice aimed at Muslims. They direct their efforts within Muslim communities, stressing the Islamic basis for condemning domestic violence and establishing supportive and equal relationships. Jewish Womens' Aid has been running since the 1980s. Amongst other services, they provide a shelter for women where religious services are observed. They also target 'spiritual abuse' as a form of domestic violence:

“Spiritual abuse is identified as belittling a woman’s spiritual worth, belief or deeds; preventing a woman from performing spiritual acts or causing a woman to transgress against spiritual obligations.”

Faith can also be a resource in tackling domestic violence according to the Against Violence and Abuse group.  Their toolkit for faith leaders states this in the opening chapter and quotes from a survivor of domestic abuse:

“Quite surprisingly, I have used my faith to empower myself. My parents used my other faith, our religion, as a tool and told me, in particular, that no matter what your parents say you have to obey your parents. Yes, you do obey your parents, but if your parents are abusing you, you know – a wrong is a wrong and a right is a right. I have used my religion to empower myself..”

And disability? Sexuality? Age?

There are many other intersections we can look to. I once sat in on a court case involving domestic abuse in a same-sex relationship, and afterwards a domestic violence professional outlined how under-reporting was a significant issue in the LGBT community and amongst older people. Domestic abuse within LGBT relationships was put on an equal criminal footing as late as 2004 and recent research has shown homophobia is still prevalent in the UK. Amongst LGBT communities, it is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime (a similar proportion to the population as a whole). Victim Support have published a mythbuster which noted the problems LGBT people have with getting help:

“Research demonstrates that LGBT people can be reluctant to turn to mainstream services because of fears of homophobia or of being ‘outed’ or of an inappropriate response.”

In response to these issues Broken Rainbow was set up in 2002 to tackle homophobic, transphobic, and same-sex domestic violence.

Half of disabled women will be the target of domestic violence according to a 2007 Report for Womens' Aid. The report criticised the “serious lack of research in this country on the experiences of disabled women survivors of domestic violence”. Barriers range from the inaccessibility of refuges, to a widespread belief that the partner of a disabled person is 'nice' because they are a carer.

Amongst older people, the perceived frailty of perpetrators and the sheer number of years of abuse are both major barriers. As is the stereotype of the type of person who suffers abuse – many victims don't think they will be believed. Womens' Aid in a 2007 report identified other reasons why older victims are reluctant to disclose abuse.  These included an increased stigma or sense  of shame, different understandings of “abuse”, belief that nothing can be done, and/or there is no appropriate service or help available, fear of not being believed, fear of consequences of any intervention and (potential) responses of other family members, including adult children. 

What about class?

Domestic violence is often stigmatised as being a problem amongst poor, working-class people. In Scotland a survey carried out in 2008/9 showed 87% of people thought domestic violence was most prevalent among working-class people. However, an article from 2005 in Violence against Women, points out that class has relatively less attention compared to gender and race in intersectional studies of domestic violence. The authors say that too often race and class are just treated as characteristics of an individual rather than 'interlocking social structures'.


As outlined above, both the forms and responses to domestic violence are shaped by intersectionality. The battle for specialist services to continue (or to be established in the first place), and the task of raising awareness is one that will last well beyond the present UK government. However, there is growing recognition amongst the public of the importance of domestic violence services, and making sure the importance of intersectionality is carried forwards is a cause we should get behind.

Rather than using characteristics and identities to isolate and hyperindividualise, we can use intersectionality to define a common and broad struggle against violence. It can also provide critical reflection on how that struggle is waged and by whom. 


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