Domestic Violence: Time to shift the blame from victims to perpetrators

March 7, 2014

“TV chef Nigella is grabbed by throat in astonishing bust-up with husband.” This was one of many headlines covering the assault committed by Charles Saatchi on Nigella Lawson in 2013. The focus clearly lies on the victim – naming Lawson and not Saatchi, starting the headline with the victim and ending with the perpetrator, and describing the assault as an ‘astonishing bust-up’ portraying it as two-sided and dramatized. Whether we like to admit it or not, society’s attitudes are just as poor. We are all guilty of asking the victim-blaming questions: Why does she stay with him? Or how can she keep going back to him? The vital questions are ignored: What causes a man to inflict violence on someone he is supposed to be in a loving relationship with? And why does domestic violence and abuse continue to be so prevalent in our society?

With International Women’s Day taking place this Saturday, and with marches taking place across the world promoting the end of Violence against Women, I believe it’s time for society to shift its thinking. We need to shift the blame away from women to men, away from victims to perpetrators; and our criminal justice system must take the lead.* In the UK;

  • On average, two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner;
  • In 2011/12, there were 2 million victims of domestic abuse;
  • 5 million women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16.

Our criminal justice system is not designed to deal with domestic violence and abuse appropriately. Rather than seeing the police as a means of securing their safety, victims see the police as the route to convicting their partner. Yet we have to appreciate that many victims do not want to leave their partner, let alone see them convicted. For many women, the perpetrator is the father of their child. Some, though we find it difficult to understand, want to stay with their partner despite the violence. For many more, however, the choice of simply leaving the relationship is one they do not have. Abusive partners are often in charge of the victim’s finances, own their property, or are even influential in the victim’s immigration status. We cannot ignore the fact that female domestic homicides most commonly occur in the period after a woman leaves her partner. So rather than turning a blind eye to these victims, with the crass view that it’s their own decision to continue living with a violent or controlling partner, it’s time we transform the way we tackle domestic violence and abuse. The government needs to step up its responsibility for supporting victims, and our police and criminal justice system needs to take a proactive approach – and not sit back and rely on victims to come forward.

Hard-working charities provide refuge and vital support for victims of domestic violence and abuse, but their funding is becoming increasingly restricted. As a result, their resources can only be accessed by a limited number of people. So is it time for the government to step up and take a ‘hands on’ approach? Working with experienced charities, a national exit strategy could be piloted, designed to assist victims of domestic violence to leave abusive relationships without fear for their safety, of being homeless or destitute, or at risk of losing their children. Such a strategy could provide financial support, immigration support, housing, childcare, social services (without warranting the fear of having their children taken away), police assistance and counselling services, to empower any victim of domestic violence to leave an abusive relationship where they currently cannot. Maybe then, once a victim has been provided with the support and safety they need, they can look towards bringing the perpetrator to justice using our criminal courts.

But it is not good enough for our criminal justice system to rely solely on the victim to bring a perpetrator to justice. Instead of waiting for the next emergency call, could the police proactively target the households in their area that have had the most call outs? Instead of relying solely on a victim’s testimony, should the police focus on obtaining other forms of evidence, such as 999 call tapes and bodyworn camera video evidence? Would the introduction of specific criminal domestic violence offence be part of the answer to securing more convictions? Would recognising in law that domestic abuse is characterised by a course of abusive, threatening and violent behaviour – rather than single incidents – make a real difference?

If a victim believes there is a chance of their partner actually being convicted if they come forward (conviction rates stand at an appalling 6.5% of incidents reported to the police), they also need to have confidence in how the perpetrator will be dealt with. Currently there is no concerted attempt to actually change the perpetrator’s behaviour. To tackle a deep-rooted problem such as domestic violence, addressing behaviour is the only way we will improve victims’ safety and stop repeat victimisation (which is higher for domestic violence than any other crime). There are a number of ground-breaking domestic violence perpetrator programmes available in the UK, but the majority of these are not mandatory. In the US, such programmes are successful as part of community orders, with compliance encouraged by regular recalls to prison when breaches occur. Research has found that participants mandated to attend programmes were more likely to complete the programme and to stop using violence, and women felt much safer – attributing this to the man’s participation. If every domestic violence offender was subject to a new ‘domestic violence order’ that required participation, not only could we see a decline in the volume of domestic violence and repeat victimisation, but victim and children’s safety would be greatly improved.

Domestic violence and abuse is entrenched in wider gender inequality, and our justice system is doing its best to tackle it against an unhelpful backdrop of victim-blaming attitudes. However, until we shift the blame and responsibility from victims to perpetrators, the lack of reporting, prosecutions and convictions will continue. As we mark International Women’s Day, we should resolve to tackle this damaging culture, take real action against the perpetrators of domestic violence and give the safety of victims and their families the attention it deserves.

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