Tentative steps in the right direction to end violence against women, but not a victory yet

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The UK House of Lords voted in favour to include a national perpetrator strategy in the Domestic Abuse Bill, a tentative step forward in the campaign to end violence against women amongst a frustrating week, explains Rosie Bellini.

It has been a long and challenging few weeks for women and girls in England after the deeply unsettling case of Sarah Everard’s abduction and murder that has made international headlines. It has also been a jointly frustrating week for the violence against women and girls’ sector who have long been campaigning for law and policy change for vulnerable populations to not only live their lives without being subject violence, but also experience the freedoms of living without threat of it.

Despite figures of authority attempting to relay fears that the abduction and murder from public places are ‘incredibly rare’ and acts as an ‘isolated incident’, the reality for many women and minoritized identities is anything but. If anything, scholars have long critiqued that understanding violence as isolated and ‘one off’s uses the same harmful language that people who use violence use to justify and excuse their behaviours. It is indeed easier to overlook an odd act of abuse if the situation is unprecedented or unusual without exploring the wider structural factors that led to its existence.

It is for this reason that many activists, practitioners and researchers in the gender-based violence sector view violence as existing along a continuum, where it is conceptualised as different manifestations of similar harmful behaviour. This behaviour is disproportionately perpetrated by men.

One of the most prominent patterns of violence that people encounter in their lives is domestic abuse or intimate partner violence. Last year in 2020 approximately 5.5% of the adult population, composed of 1.6 million women and 757,000 men in the United Kingdom were subject to it.

Despite the severity of its impact, the government has been criticised for being slow to respond to this devastating societal problem through primary legislation with significant delays to improve the Domestic Abuse Bill by two general elections. At the time where it was first introduced to parliament there were some critical and notable exclusions from the legislation. This included completely excluding migrant women with no recourse to public funds from the bill and a notable lack of intervention for those who harm their current or former intimate partner.

When a responsible individual for harm and abuse is excluded from the solution, there can be a greater application and expectation that the victim of such harm has to be held responsible, or improve other factors unrelated to violence such as the context where violence might take place. In returning to Sarah Everard’s case, we can see this narrative in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of doubling of the size of the Safer Streets fund that aims to improve local measures such as better lighting and CCTV in public spaces.

Yet no campaigner against violence and abuse sees such measures as genuinely increasing the safety of women – dark parks and alleyways themselves do not cause violence to women, and they are not the only place that they are abused or intimated. To have a meaningful impact on preventing domestic violence we need to challenge the individuals who feel it is justified, appropriate or acceptable to use these harmful behaviours in the first place.

At the start of 2020 A Call to Action was launched by Respect, SafeLives and Social Finance that originally represented over 80 organisations including academics, activists, police forces, health and social care, support services and health practitioners. Open Lab was also included in this call, signed by both I and the director of Open Lab, Professor David Kirk. I signed this call as I had noticed a tendency within the design of digital technologies space to follow the same false narrative, that to tackle domestic violence we had to equip victims with better safety devices to alert others in emergency situations.

It has only been recently that understanding perpetrators are users that we need to challenge directly, and provide them means to understand the unacceptability of their behaviour and to choose non-violent alternatives. The Call for Action outlined the growing body of research that indicated a positive reduction of violence and safer lives for victims was possible through quality-assured interventions that directly worked with the perpetrator of abuse. However, despite this growing body of evidence, something that was desperately needed was a Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Strategy for England and Wales that was to be underpinned and supported by statutory support by the government. On 10 February this call was explicitly addressed through Amendment 167 in the House of Lords by a group of determined Lords and Baronesses recognising that:

"Now is the time for the government to turn the tide on domestic abuse where it is perpetrators who are asked to make changes in their lives rather than their victims."

On Monday 15 March after several months of campaigning and calls by the domestic violence sector, a small indication that change could be possible was achieved after a vote in the House of Lords on three influential amendments relating to the inclusion of migrant women and a national perpetrator strategy.

A resounding number of those in favour of the amendments agreed that government should release a perpetrator strategy within one year of the Bill accepted into law. As the Bill returns to the House of Commons for its final reading, the sector can only await with bated breath that such amendments will not be removed and remain intact. For now, all eyes are on the government as to what this strategy will look like, what kind of funding it may demand and indeed who is included in the conversation that helps to shape it.

Rosie Bellini's research focuses on technology, domestic abuse and violence prevention.