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Domestic violence: still a women’s issue?

In 1878, Frances Power Cobbe had published in Contemporary Review an essay entitled ‘Wife Torture in England’. That essay is noted for the its influence on the Matrimonial Causes Act 1878 that, for the first time, allowed women living in violent relationships to apply for a separation order. In the intervening 150 years, concern about violence experienced by women at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, and other family members has reached around the world. Domestic violence is now a key concern discussed in a range of venues, from global summits to college campuses to sporting events to the Grammys. Domestic violence is now ‘everyone’s business’ (as the HMIC rightly titled its most recent inspection), but is it still a women’s issue? As research across the world shows, most physical and sexual violence in an intimate relationship is committed by men against women. In this sense, such violence is still a women’s issue. However, a few moments of reflection on the debates that have ensued since Cobbe’s intervention might suggest otherwise. Contemporarily there are three bones of contention: evidence (who does what to whom?); policy (how do we make a difference?); and politics (whose issue is this?).

Who does what to whom? Frances Power Cobbe was an influential voice of the suffragette movement. However, it was not until the presence of second wave feminism during the 1960s that domestic violence and marital rape became a focus of feminist campaigning and research. As a result of listening to women’s voices, feminist research spawned not only new empirical insights, but afforded a platform for theorizing violence through a gendered lens and carved out new methodological and epistemological terrain. However, such a lens is still resisted. Recurring questions include: Are women as violent as men in relationships? Don’t men suffer from domestic violence too? This ‘gender symmetry’ debate has occupied a fair few academics over their entire careers. Funnily enough, those working outside the ivory tower do not spend much of their time questioning whether women suffer the brunt of most violence and abuse dished out in private life. In the service delivery arenas occupied by police officers, accident and emergency staff, victim advocates, social workers, probation officers, and the like, it is self-evident that they do. Over time, domestic violence scholarship and research evidence has become much more nuanced, and our understanding of both the diversity of people who are affected by such violence, as well as the diversity of their individual experiences, grows each year. This more nuanced understanding makes it easier, rather than harder, for us to say that, yes, domestic violence is still a women’s issue.

How do we make a difference? Much of the effort worldwide has focused on the efficacy of a criminal justice response. As we have both written previously, any adversarial system of justice is inherently unsuitable and creates a number of dilemmas for those experiencing domestic violence as well as those whose job it is to deal with this high volume crime. It is time we reflect on what has been gained, as well as what has been lost or indeed what was never possible to have, from this focus on criminal justice. The problems with the police response noted in HMIC’s 2014 inspection echoed those in the 2004 inspection, which were the same failures that had been acknowledged for years. Jayne Mooney (2007) asked some time ago why violence against women was such a public anathema and a private commonplace all at the same time. Answering this question requires some imaginative interventions outside the criminal justice system; a range of community-based services for victims, as well as multi-agency partnerships and health-based initiatives, are notable steps in the right direction. Regardless of the form that domestic violence responses and services take, women will likely constitute the largest clientele—so is this still a women’s issue? You bet!

Since its emergence, domestic violence has been a political issue, one intertwined with women’s rights and debates about the role of the state in ‘private’ matters. Far from being a fringe issue, domestic violence is now a topic to which all politicians must pay lip-service, if nothing else. However, politically-minded individuals and organizations often disagree sharply over the idea of domestic violence being seen as a ‘women’s issue’. Does a focus on women benefit or hinder the creation of effective policy and legislative responses to domestic violence? Divergent answers to this question were apparent in the recent controversy regarding the Welsh Government’s legislative proposals to ‘end violence against women, domestic abuse, and sexual violence in Wales’. Only time will tell what the most politically expedient course of action might be, but at present it would be impossible to imagine domestic violence not as a women’s issue.

For International Women’s Day 2015 the theme is ‘Make it Happen’. Coming to grips with some of the persistent and knotty issues that pertain to understanding violence against women and making a difference in anyone’s life so blighted by such violence is a constant battle to ‘Make it Happen’.

Image Credit: “Never Alone.” Photo by Raul Lieberwirth. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Earl Richards

    Domestic violence is not a women’s issue, it is a criminal act.

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