Domestic violence - missing the point

Grace Davies
12 December 2007

Listening to the news last night, I was struck by a particularly depressing story - that of a British woman beaten to death by her boyfriend in August this year. Just one day after the official 16 Days Against Gender Violence campaign ended, news of yet another tragic and preventable death. The case was raised in the UK parliament, but, it seems, for all the wrong reasons.

Amanda Murphy was killed by a partner with a history of domestic violence who had been imprisoned for assaulting her, she was battered to death in her own home, but the fact of her death itself was not news. Because, of course, domestic violence is not "news" - it is a commonly accepted fact of too many people's lives. The case made headlines because Andrew Mournian carried out the attack having been released early from prison under a government plan to reduce jail overcrowding.

The political opposition have predictably used this for point-scoring, Mournian was released from prison six days early, and this is now the salient point of discussion: "(he) killed Amanda Murphy when he would have been in prison", said the shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert, declaring the scheme "disastrous". Media reports actually quote the judge in the case as ruling that this fact was irrelevant: "The defendant would have carried out the attack whenever he was released", giving the government a useful "get-out". The true horror of the implicit passivity of this statement went unnoticed. Government and opposition failure to grasp the need of an effective post-prison or preventative system received no commentary.

Listening to the report, and reflecting on the treatment of the story got me thinking about the universality of domestic violence, the implicit acceptance of it in cultures and societies around the world, and the urgent need to move beyond current attitudes, to make the personal political.

The theme was a strong one on our 16 days blog and article series, which encompassed a huge range of voices, from personal testimonies of survival to reports from those working at the highest levels to combat domestic violence and violence against women.

Kylie Thomas wrote movingly about the death of Nomawethu Ngalimani, murdered by her lover in South Africa. In an article on the connections between dowry and domestic violence in Bangladesh, Santi Rozario highlighted the role of micro-finance in fuelling these twin problems. Joanne Miller, a survivor of domestic violence in the UK, talked of the barriers against speaking out, Zohra Moosa wrote about tackling minority-specific violence, and the need to break down community silence, and Diana Barren of CAADA UK reported on breakthroughs in aiding survivors of domestic violence. Takyiwaa Manuh looked at domestic violence from an African perspective.

According to the WHO, nearly half of the world's women who die from homicides are killed by their current or former husbands or partners. It is clear that domestic violence manifests itself in different ways in different societies and cultures, but it is also always present. Research by the Karama program reveals that women in the middle east and north Africa are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of a male relative - father, brother, uncle - than women in the west, where most attacks are made by partners. A report by the UNFPA on domestic violence in Russia states that one woman dies every 40 minutes at the hands of an intimate partner. Varying levels of social, public and government acceptance exist, but a collective resistance to acknowledge and to act to combat it seems to transcend borders and cultures.

The sanctity of family may go some way to explaining this. The importance of family, and the subsequent need to protect both its identity and existence against all is entrenched, and perpetuates a system of patriarchy at the personal level which is replicated in public power.

As Zohra Moosa says in her concluding post, there is a need to connect the abuse of power at an individual level, to its use at state level - the failure of the state to protect its citizens from violence. It is only by making these connections that we can make a true impact on saving the lives of women like Amanda Murphy.

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