What will it take to end violence against women in the UK?

A decade on from the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, progressive policy, laws and attitudes are being undermined by draconian cuts to legal aid which are drastically reducing access to legislation put in place to protect women against violence.

Rahila Gupta
1 December 2014

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the first significant federal law to deal with this issue in the US - it is a good moment to assess where we are at in the UK, 10 years after the passing of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.

In the 70s, when women were beginning to organise around domestic violence and even into the 80s, it was common for police officers to dismiss such call outs as a ‘domestic’ i.e. not real police work. In the 90s, however, posters began appearing in police stations declaring that ‘Domestic Abuse is a Crime’, a gratifying and visible symbol of the success of women’s lobbying. However, at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013, at a post-show discussion of Our Glass House, a site-specific immersive theatre piece on domestic violence performed in a ‘real’ house on a council estate, police officers who participated in the discussion shockingly referred to it as a ‘domestic’. You might say, plus ça change. However, we have made real progress in terms of policy, law and attitudes but implementation of the legislation remains patchy despite all the training in the world; and misogynist and sexist attitudes hard to shift.

Whilst progress is quantifiable in terms of government policy, press coverage, public condemnation, preventative work in schools and more responsive policing, what is hard to determine is whether all of this has had any impact on the scale and frequency of violence against women. In fact, most of the figures are worse. The familiar figure of one in four women having experienced abuse at some point in their lives has now risen to one in three.  This can be explained partly by the lack of reliable national data and partly by an increase in reporting rates in proportion to the decrease in stigma attached to it.  However, there is no ambiguity in the number of women killed in the UK through male violence which has risen from 101 in 2009 to 143 in 2013; this can only be explained as a result of a pervasive ‘culture of disbelief’ that so infects the police that they continually fail women and our collective, societal failure to loosen the patriarchal stranglehold.

Funding is a key part of this equation. Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, in her foreword to A Growing Crisis of Unmet Need, says that the sector has suffered from chronic structural underfunding, ‘The services have never been “contracted out” from the statutory sector. They have grown up in a highly challenging, even hostile environment, led by women who have been determined to meet a need whose very existence has often been disputed every step of the way.’ The figures neatly encapsulate some of the tensions in the violence against women (VAW) sector. Funding of the domestic and sexual violence sector was cut by one third from 2010-12.  In 2013 there were 21 less specialist refuge providers, and a loss of 71 specialist non-refuge services alongside an increase of 24 generic services.

A disproportionate 47% of services for black and minority ethnic (BME) women have experienced significant loss of funding.

There is severe pressure on women-only services to provide support for men, despite lack of demand and lack of evidence that women’s services are best placed to meet men’s needs. At a time of loss across the women’s sector, services to support men have increased in number: there are 29 additional services for men in 2013 than in 2011, leading to a total of 146 services. All regions have lost children’s services.

It is against this background of funding cuts that we must assess the determination of government to tackle severe institutional failures to protect women and girls such as the recent scandal of sexual abuse of 1400 girls in Rotherham; the Jay report into the Rotheram abuse repeatedly returns to the lack of resources as one of the factors. Thus the recent announcement by Theresa May, British Home Secretary, to plug a known loophole,  proposing to strengthen the legislation on domestic abuse by criminalising controlling and coercive behaviours, invites the cynical response that this is gesture politics.  The move away from grants to commissioning in our neo-liberal world, which I have discussed more fully elsewhere, has decimated this sector because it lacks the capacity to engage with competitive tendering.

The attempt to save money also lies behind the growth of generic services. In 2008, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) defeated Ealing Council’s attempts to cut funding by arguing that its ‘specialist’ remit excluded women from the majority community and was therefore in breach of equality duties. After this victory, SBS advice was widely sought for months afterwards by other groups attempting to fight similar initiatives by their local councils to no avail. As the figures above show, the loss of specialist services is not matched by the growth in generic services. And we know from anecdotal evidence that the loss of specialism has led to a deterioration in the quality of service offered.

Although the move to generic services is driven by funding cuts, it may have found ideological cover in BME women’s groups arguing in support of ‘mainstreaming’ of their issues. The Sixth Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee sums up their position well, ‘On the whole, South Asian women's groups agree that policies to address so-called "honour"-based violence and forced marriage should be integrated into broader domestic violence policy as this allows the issues to benefit from the resources and best practice developed in this area, and can help to prevent the development of "differential policies which negatively impact on minority communities, such as racist immigration controls". This approach also stresses that, although the term "honour"-based violence describes a particular motive for violence, whatever the background the result is still domestic violence.’

It is the risk of promoting a racist agenda that has led BME women to argue against honour crimes being exoticised and placed outside the boundaries of domestic violence. It is for the same reason that no real research has been conducted in Britain into anecdotal evidence that suggests differential rates of violence in different communities – out of fear that it will be used by racists to attack minorities. At a global level, research conducted by Lori Heise et al found that women who faced physical ‘intimate partner’ violence ranged from 6% to 61% depending on the country. What are the differences between societies where 6 % as opposed to 61 % of women experience violence?

This leads us onto very controversial grounds. One of the holy, and very useful, cows of feminism has been the assertion that domestic violence cuts across race, class, religion, age and so on. It acts as an effective counter against racism which seeks to portray men of particular backgrounds, i.e. minority men as more barbaric. Of course, it is not an issue of racial or ethnic differences. It is a question of the economic, political and social development of a society, of the levels of democracy and devolution of power within communities. Lori Heise found that low-violence cultures shared key features that included female power and autonomy outside the home, strong sanctions against interpersonal violence, a definition of masculinity that is not linked to male dominance or honour, and equality of decision making and resources within the family. As the VAW sector is concerned precisely with the development of such a culture, it is important that we begin to research these difficult issues.

What we have begun to accept is that domestic violence manifests itself differently in different communities. For example, dowry abuse appears to be more common in the Indian community; while forced marriages may be prevalent in all South Asian communities, abduction ie taking girls abroad to be married is more common in the Pakistani community who accounted for 47% of cases in 2012. The desire to avoid the racism that can bedevil debates on VAW has also led to a form of moral equivalence, similar in effect to cultural relativism, in that it shields a culture from criticism: for example, some black women attempt to extinguish all differences between FGM and cosmetic surgery such as labiaplasty which some women in the West opt for.

We have also seen the gradual adoption of the term ‘gender’ as in ‘gender based violence’ rather than ‘women’ as in ‘violence against women’, another variant of government closing down specialisms and deliberately adopting a neutral stance which allows us to discuss violence against men in the same breath as violence against women; this also implicitly rejects a central feminist plank that violence against women is a consequence of the imbalance of power between men and women in a patriarchal society. This is not to deny that men experience violence, but to emphasise that violence against men isn’t directly comparable to that faced by women: it often takes place in same-sex relationships; the frequency and severity of abuse is nothing like that suffered by women; and there have been reports that refuge spaces for men are frequently unoccupied.

As violence against women came to be increasingly, and quite rightly, criminalised, laws introduced to deal with it crashed slap-bang into civil rights concerns. Helena Kennedy cautions against this development in her book, Eve was Framed, arguing that more justice for women should not be demanded at the expense of less justice for men. Women’s demands have either been deliberately hijacked to undermine civil liberties, or there have been unintended consequences. She gives the example of legislation introduced to deal with stalking being used to stop picketing, or the introduction of a power of arrest attached to common assault in cases of domestic violence now being used at random against ‘boys on street corners’. When Harriet Harman lobbied for harsher sentences for men convicted of the manslaughter of their wives/partners in the early 90s, it had the unintended effect of making it harder for women to receive compassionate sentences even when they had killed men who had battered them for years. 

Most women working in the VAW sector believe that the legal position is about right now; the irony is that access to that legislation is being stripped back by the draconian cuts to legal aid. Research carried out by Rights of Women and Women’s Aid has found that 43% of women do not have the required standard of evidence of violence to apply successfully for legal aid. Uneven implementation of the law and chronic under funding reveal that the issue is still fairly low-priority despite the rhetoric.

This article was first published in September. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014


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