Home: not always where the heart is

zohra moosa
29 November 2007
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door in San Juan

One of the most dangerous places for a woman is in her own home. This is quite contrary to many people's beliefs. For example, in today's 16 Days article, Sarah from the Fawcett Society discusses how rape is largely a result of coercion by intimate partners, and not strangers in dark alleys. Similarly, in the first international study on domestic violence, the World Health Organization found that domestic violence, which it also calls ‘intimate partner violence', is the most common form of violence against women. At its release two years ago, the Director General of WHO admitted:

This study shows that women are more at risk from violence at home than in the street.

The fact that women are not safe within their own homes strikes me as particularly painful given the romantic ideas many of us hold about ‘homes': they are meant to be sanctuaries from the pressures of the world, where we can go to rest, eat and relax, the places where we expect to find comfort and love from those closest to us. They are not supposed to be the sites of some of the most horrific and degrading abuses against women.

Many women are not able to escape violence relationships precisely because they happen within their own homes. Some women are literally trapped, physically caged by family members and their abusive partners, unable to leave their home. Other women are psychologically trapped, emotionally abused and undermined by the person that is supposed to be their closest ally - a betrayal that is so deep that they no longer believe they have agency over their lives. Other women are trapped by fear because they have been threatened to be killed if they speak out or try to leave by a person that knows them most intimately. Some women are financially trapped, unable to escape attacks because they can't afford to move out of their home and do not have support networks that can take them in. These scenarios are often made even more difficult when children are involved.

Yet most governments still do not treat domestic violence as seriously as other kinds of violence as Human Rights Watch catalogues. This of course is a result of patriarchy: violence against women in the private sphere is given a lower priority than dangers that are supposed to affect ‘everyone' in the public sphere. According to Amnesty for example:

The Russian government estimates that 14,000 women were killed by relatives in 1999, yet the country still has no law specifically addressing domestic violence.

This is a gross mistake in policy terms as a conference today points out that costs to the state from domestic violence are in the region of over £20 billion for the UK alone.

Those who run refuges know what a difference a safe home environment can make for women attempting to resist violence. For example, Housing for Women, a charity I work with, provides an emergency hostel with specialized support as well as permanent homes to women rejecting violence because it believes that women can be better empowered to take charge of their lives if they have a secure base from which they can make their own life choices.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I report that in the UK, the government has decided to encourage more women survivors to stay within their own homes by introducing ‘panic rooms'. These measures include ‘a solid door with mortice locks, steel hinges, bolts and a spy glass' with some women also receiving intercom systems and barred windows. But is turning one's bedroom into a kind of steel trap really the best way to keep safe from violence? Or is Alison Benjamin right when she asks whether it is a good idea to invest in a scheme that (a) hasn't been tested and (b) appears to be motivated by cost savings instead of addressing the underlying unsolved problem of violent partners?

Photo by Face-2-Face, shared under a Creative Commons license

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