Theresa May’s domestic abuse bill fails to put the safety of victims first or account for the huge gaps in funding which are putting the refuges in crisis

rosie article

“I think of the exhausted others who, as welfare become workfare and life constricted into an impossible bargain had to choose between abusive partners and living in their cars or the unsafe living rooms of people who might and did hurt their children, who had the optionless-option of continued personal abuse or the impersonal abuse of the shelters and privatizing welfare system”. Anne Boyer-A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

This summer Pathway Project used the World Cup to highlight the rise in domestic abuse recorded when England lose a football game with the eye-catching headline “No-one wants England to win more than women”. The advert claimed police reported an increase in domestic abuse by 38% following a loss. Although it was a powerful way of raising awareness of the issue it is also symptomatic of conversations about domestic abuse that headlines always declare an increase or sudden emergency. The reality of domestic abuse, is that it is a chronic problem, which should not be framed as primarily caused by particular events .The same study shows domestic violence reports increase by 26% even if England win their match. Undeniably there are triggers for the rise in reports: the Christmas period routinely sees a spike in domestic abuse cases, whilst researchers suggest reports peak over summer. Equally, after the 2008 recession, the abuse reported became significantly more violent. But the wider trends must not be ignored. Scotland has recently reported domestic abuse has been on the rise for the 2nd year in a row. Campaigns like Pathway Project’s football themed adverts ultimately shift the blame from the perpetrators onto specific factors. While women are overwhelmingly affected by domestic abuse, regressive gender stereotypes can make it difficult for men experiencing abuse to access help without feeling shame and embarrassment and needing help. Subsequently toxic masculinity and patriarchal structures creates an atmosphere that allows abuse to flourish.

Of course the statistics used come from police reports making it impossible to tell how many people are suffering in silence with no access to support. In reality domestic abuse is an ongoing problem that affects millions and still struggles to gain long-term attention apart from brief periods where a shock advert makes it a trending topic. Coercion starts young with 40% of girls aged 14 to 17 claiming they have experienced sexual assault. As they grow up, they have a one in four chance of experience domestic abuse and one in two of them will encounter controlling behaviour from a partner. A significant change in attitude is needed in order to make any form of violence towards women a crime rather than the rite of passage it currently is.

Theresa May has long claimed tackling domestic abuse is one of her major priorities and had an impressive track record on the issue  as home secretary, for example in criminalising coercive control. The new domestic abuse bill focuses on reform to the criminal justice system with longer sentences and recognition of emotional abuse as an equally serious crime. We should welcome a Prime Minister committed to tackling this issue in the long term but May has also insufficient empathy for survivors of abuse.  Under May’s approval Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre has remained open despite incarcerating dozens of vulnerable women who have been the victims of sex trafficking and face further danger in terms of sexual assault and declining mental health at the centre. Additionally, the introduction of Universal Credit has had a devastating impact on people currently in an abusive situation. The new scheme means couples must apply together, although only one of them can make the application, meaning it is easy for an aggressor to take control of both parties’ finances. Any individual social security the vulnerable person might have been receiving before Universal Credit will be incorporated into the couple’s shared monthly payment. This results in victims having limited independence and no way to remove themselves from the situation unless they turn to refuges, many of which charge weekly rent. The specifics of the new bill also leave much to be desired. Tougher sentencing is a questionable tactic considering high rates of recidivism among domestic abusers, and also fails to offer sufficient psychological treatment to abusers.

The Conservatives have further failed victims; since the 2010 election a quarter of refuges have shut down, despite reports of domestic abuse being on the rise. In London reports show the organisations that have been worst affected by council budget cuts are specialist refuges for women from ethnic minorities despite this being the most likely group to experience abuse. Two-thirds of victims are now turned away from overburdened refuges forcing them to choose homelessness or return to the threatening environment they have fled from[1]. The likelihood of getting into a refuge is now a postcode lottery. Domestic abuse support workers argue it is absolutely essential that refuges stay open. They provide a safe space for the abused individual and their children access a safe space while they receive help from staff about the next steps. If they do choose to report the abuse then support during this often traumatic period is of course essential, but it shouldn’t be compulsory in the process of receiving help and escaping a dangerous situation. May’s new policies rather rely on support being provided once the victim has gone to the police which harms those who fear speaking out or do not want to put themselves through the ordeal of a trial. The issue is further complicated by many individuals being too intimidated to report the crime or not accepting the extent of the abuse they are subject to which is particularly problematic in cases emotional mistreatment such as manipulation and coercion.

Undeniably May’s policies are trying to improve the police response to reports of domestic abuse as well as making the criminal process less pressurising for the victim. But currently the system does not provide an accessible escape route for those experiencing abuse from a partner which is urgently necessary. Organisations like Sisters Uncut maintain pressure on the government to address the issue more seriously and there are many charities that work extremely hard to combat the problem. But the system of housing and benefits must change in order to combat the root problems. Two women in England and Wales are murdered every week by a current or ex-partner. The government needs to comprehend the severity of the situation that we are looking at. They need to consider how their economic policy worsens the situation and invest in prevention strategies for early intervention as well as keeping refuges open for those who are at immediate risk. Labour’s shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler suggested taking New Zealand’s model of giving victims 10 days paid leave from work allowing them time to seek help and extricate themselves from an unsafe home. We need more of these policies which puts the victims’ wellbeing first and foremost as well as comprehending the economic factors that can leave victims feeling they have no escape. Eye catching headlines may raise awareness but serious long term work is required to combat the conditions and gender roles that have allowed domestic abuse to become so firmly entrenched in our society.