Plans to redefine domestic violence are disingenuous given the cuts to services that abused women need
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 17 December 2011 11.00 GMT
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Domestic violence must become a priority for policing and financial support.
The government's consultation on redefining domestic violence is disingenuous given its economic policies and the policing they are promoting. Proposals to include coercive control within the definition of domestic violence are unlikely to improve the situation of women and girls who need reliable law enforcement. It is not legislation but firm unbiased police response that is urgently required. Will charges of coercive control be taken seriously when clear, repeated assaults and threats to life are not? Does the government want police to pass judgment on what constitutes emotional violence? Will this not be used to blur imperatives for police intervention?
Proposals about extending protection to under-18s would help, but we have to remember that young people see a system that supports neither them nor their mothers. The Guardian's extensive investigation of the riots revealed widespread fury at the police. While girls are less likely to be victims of stop-and-search than male counterparts, they are angry at the treatment faced by brothers and boyfriends, especially if they're not white, and the disrespect meted out to their distressed mothers by officers. Redefining domestic violence to give police greater power of judgment in young women's personal lives will hardly restore trust. What would help is redefining police and court priorities so that crimes against the person are dealt with more harshly than crimes against property.
Two women are murdered every week by partners or ex-partners. Police repeatedly ignore reports of domestic violence and death threats. The murder of Christine Chambers in Essex earlier this year is not a one-off. And officers who didn't protect victims of domestic murder or rape are usually not disciplined, let alone sacked.
In 2005, 60% of rape cases reported to the Metropolitan police were domestic, yet they are rarely prosecuted in this context. Instead, each rape, threat or assault is considered in isolation so that the extent of the violence never emerges, and the perpetrator, if prosecuted at all, is more likely to be acquitted. The six-month time limit on pursuing a charge of criminal assault is another obstacle to conviction. It denies women enough time to leave, ensure they and their children are safe, and only then pursue justice – not against an isolated incident but the full spectrum of crimes committed against them.
Women are not quick to report partners. On average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she first calls the police. The British Crime Survey 2011 suggests that only 11% of sexual assaults and 16% of incidents of partner abuse are reported. Why so few? Because they cannot rely on the police to believe them, protect them or prosecute their attacker – officers are quick to accept men's claim that the woman provoked them or attacked them first. Centuries of social acceptance of violence have undermined women's confidence. And mothers may be anxious to keep a roof over children's heads and may be justifiably worried about losing custody to violent fathers or to social services if they leave.
While violence affects women of every class, the poorer we are, the fewer resources we have to escape it. And recent government policies reinforce barriers to escape.
First, the cuts in jobs and services are hitting women hardest. Second, such policies as the welfare reform bill, now in the Lords, take away what little protection we had. The Social Fund, a lifeline for women fleeing violence by providing for emergency expenses for a new home, is being abolished. Traumatised women are forced into job-seeking – the government has refused to extend the exemption period necessary for recovery beyond three months. Similarly, the cap on housing benefit will make it harder for women to leave violent partners.
Moreover, cuts to refuges, legal aid, Citizens Advice and other community support remove the expert help women need to get any legal protection at all. Instead the government is putting £225,000 into a fund for male victims of domestic violence.
Many are appalled at the sustained attack by government on women's waged employment and benefits and services, and say so. But an obvious connection which every woman instinctively feels goes unmentioned. When we're poorer, we're more vulnerable sexually, to partners, employers, officials. Does the government know their policies make women more sexually available?
Domestic violence, the most common violent crime, should be a priority for policing and for financial support. With cuts to both, what is the point of a consultation?