Wife-beating used to be socially acceptable. There was the “rule of thumb” proclaimed by a judge in the eighteenth century: that a husband was allowed to thrash his wife provided the rod was no thicker than his thumb. Then there were the bye-laws in London which permitted wife-beating during the day, but not at night because the noise disturbed the neighbours.
Things changed gradually in the UK. The introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1878 helped victims of violence in marriage to obtain separation orders if their husband was convicted of aggravated assault and, in 1882, the Women’s Property Act, allowed wives to obtain full control over their own money and property. In 1891 the right of a man to use corporal punishment on his wife was removed, but it was only a century later in 1991 that marital rape was defined in UK law.
In the 1970s, when I was active in the field of homelessness, the need for shelters for abused women was becoming obvious. I was a volunteer in one for a few weeks. I recall some severely traumatised individuals in the shared dorm, some with addiction and mental conditions. But there were no children with them. In 1971, Erin Pizzey in Chiswick established the first house for domestic abuse victims, where mothers could shelter with their children. She was soon overwhelmed by the numbers. I recall a worrying phone call with her where she was seeking to find more activists to set up additional shelters in squatter houses.
Within my lifetime, there has been huge improvement in the understanding of the needs of domestic abuse victims. The new proposed strategy for Kent illustrates this. Several partner organisations are involved: the police (who are often first responders); the law-courts; probation; the NHS, including specialists on mental health and addiction; the housing departments to rehouse victims; the schools who identify children who are affected by family violence, and youth workers. No wonder the first point in the strategy is “driving change together.”
Partnership between police and ambulance service
I wonder how this newly acclaimed partnership between the ambulance service and the police will work, in view of the recent news that the police will no longer do ambulance work for mental health incidents. In domestic abuse cases, I suppose the police on the scene have to decide if the activity reported to them includes a possible crime rather than random violent behaviour, caused by drink, drugs or a mental health syndrome.
Prevention and provision of services
The next phase in the Kent strategy is prevention and early intervention. It helps that there is now a much better definition and understanding of what domestic abuse is. It is not only “wife-beating”. It includes any form of coercive behaviour such as modern slavery; exclusive financial controlling; “honour” crimes; marital rape; bondage and strangulation. Staff involved in any of the partner-agencies (police, school-teachers, youth workers; NHS) need to be able to recognise the early signs so that family intervention can be speedy.
The next stage is provision of services. This has hugely improved since Erin was arranging accommodation in London squats. Now the housing departments of local councils are bound to set up shelters, and also to find follow-on permanent housing for victims who have had to move away from the perpetrators. There is also “sanctuary” help to reinforce existing homes with special locks, cameras and fire-proof letter boxes to protect victims from violent incursions. The victims can also access mental health support and help with addiction (drugs or alcohol).
Domestic abuse leaves psychological scars on children
There is also much more awareness of the effect on children of family violence. It is reckoned that about 7% of the adult population experience family violence. The effect on children can last a lifetime, perpetuating more violence and/or mental distress. When there is a need for rehousing, there is much more care about the special needs of child or youth victims, including those with disabilities. Independent supported housing for troubled youth is also available.
All this helps to minimise harm, the fourth point in the strategy. The best is to prevent the worst incidents (point 1) but, failing that, the strategy must be to minimise harm to all those involved. This can be achieved both by the skilled input of the staff of various partner agencies, but also by the resources that are available, including housing. I think there is now much more awareness of how a sudden break in a household has a severe impact on family income. A traumatised woman sometimes cannot think straight about how to provide food and shelter for her family.
A third of victims are men
Not all victims are women. About a third are men, and some are LGBT+. An estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 757,000 men). Most victims are from the White British ethnic category, with an incidence of 7% compared to 4% in all the other categories combined, declared one Googled site. But, in trying to check this, I found a table that showed an over-hasty use of %, when the White group was based on a sample of over 21,000 and the Mixed White/Caribbean that showed over 10% (the highest incidence) was based on a sample of only 106 cases. Some domestic abuse crimes are linked to particular ethnic groups, for instance honour crimes and genital mutilation.
The need for justice and ongoing protection
The fifth phase of the strategy is justice, recovery and ongoing protection. Feminists have been working for years to get better treatment of abused women by the police and the courts. The old view that if she is visibly battered, it is her own fault, and she is likely to be a prostitute, has now been superseded. (See the recent book about Peter Sutliffe’s victims (link) where some police statements assumed all were most likely sex-workers.) The first stage is for a victim to be believed and offered appropriate help. Once safe from the perpetrator, they can begin recovery. But they may need ongoing protection. They may also need lots of help to begin to lead independent lives.