As the memory of turkey and mulled wine fades, and last-minute preparations for New Years Eve parties and big nights out are made, we are hovering between two spikes in domestic violence which occur every year at Christmas and New Year. Like the calm before the storm, there is something sobering about learning that after some of our most valued cultural moments, from the World Cup Final to getting wrecked on December 31st, people will be physically assaulted by those they love.
This month a report was released about domestic violence in the UK. The report stated that police had been “nearly overwhelmed” by an increase in domestic violence-related calls: up 31% since 2013. Part of the increase may be due to better recording practices, which has been viewed as a positive. However, if the police are only now beginning to realise the importance of recording domestic violence properly, then this is itself a huge cause for concern. The wording of the report is equally worrying, noting the “excessive” workloads placed on specialist domestic violence teams. As Jane Keeper, from the domestic abuse charity Refuge has noted, more resources are needed for police to prevent “a further slippage in standards of investigation”. In other words, the police need to allocate more funds for this, and austerity isn’t helping.
The increase in reports of domestic violence has been attributed to changing attitudes: rightly, more victims are expecting police intervention for assaults which occur in the home, or with partners and family. Remnants of the old attitudes: “domestic violence is a private matter”, remain, but are rapidly being replaced by a new attitude which believes that assault is assault, no matter what the relationship is between attacker and victim. Indeed, the HMIC report found “mixed” attitudes among officers. Likewise, there was huge variation in the rates of arrest which came from police call-outs, resulting in what was called a “postcode lottery” of efficiency. Domestic violence has been a low priority for police for too long, and it is no longer acceptable that a victim should be left in far greater danger in one part of the country, compared to another.
In the UK, it is estimated that one in four women and one in six men will be victims of domestic violence or relationship abuse. The police received 900,000 calls related to domestic violence between March 2014 and March 2015. Of women who are killed by men in the UK, nearly half die at the hands of a current or former partner: two women are killed in such a way per week, as well as thirty men per year.
Put simply, not enough is being done – greater protection and a more proactive response from police should be the norm. A cold, hard police cell shouldn’t be an unfamiliar bed for people who assault others – whether their victim is a stranger in the street, a child or a spouse. Old attitudes to domestic violence need to disappear fast – like any other vicious crime, relationship abuse is everyone’s business. But the police’s role in tackling abuse can only go so far: other organisations and projects are required if 2016 is to see improvement.
Most of this additional action has traditionally consisted of women’s refuges, most of which came into being in the 1970s – and not much else. Still, the landscape is dominated by such organisations, crumbling though they are beneath the weight of austerity. A quick google will put the abused and terrified woman in touch with many contacts which will allow her to escape her brutish and controlling partner: these services are a vital lifeline in such situations. However, in terms of the potential ways relationship abuse can manifest and be tackled, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Other types of action to tackle domestic violence and spousal abuse has focused on the abuser: dotted around the larger cities in the UK, there are centres aimed at rehabilitating abusers. It is unclear how successful such attempts are, because, perhaps unsurprisingly, such projects exist largely under the radar, in the taboo realm of rehabilitating the publicly hated. This type of service, as the opposite of the typical women’s refuge, is incredibly gender-bound, existing in a heteronormative world where troubled men are compelled to punch things, and women to run for their lives. Whilst this may be an accurate depiction of some cases of domestic violence, especially since growing up in a violent home increases a child’s likelihood of abusing partners as an adult, it appears quite reductive. Some services, such as the Respect phoneline, offer help to both women and men who abuse their partners and want to change. However, these proactive approaches often lack funding and awareness, and are thus limited in their reach. DVPP courses are another example of an attempt to teach willing abusers how to change their ways.
The question of whether men, in particular, who hit the women in their lives, can be rehabilitated, is controversial to say the least. Such attempts have been recorded with varying levels of success: in an article from The Globe and Mail, such attempts are explored, and the importance of attempting to understand abusers is highlighted. However, the most obvious problem is that such attempts come late, sometimes too late: “Jimmy”, the 28-year-old weightlifter who first smeared blood into his ex-girlfriend’s face ten years ago, should have learnt how to behave properly in relationships and deal with his anger at a far earlier stage of life. Such education and support should be available to all young people. Such education needs to be pre-emptive: approximately 40% of young people are already subjected to relationship abuse in their teenage years. Unfortunately, many of the best schools in the country currently fail to provide anything other than basic biological sex education for their students. This is not something which is on the Conservative government’s radar for change.
Beyond the police station, our existing services appear to be slipping backwards due to lack of funds, and little in the way of 21st century innovation is being encouraged. Many of the services available to help prevent and protect are heavily weighted in gender politics which can get in the way of a dynamic and collaborative approach. Services aimed at helping male or LGBT victims are often treated as a niche, for instance, which may be more of an overall hindrance than a benefit in the fight against violence. A 1996 investigation found that misogyny was just a small part of the major predictor of abusive behaviour: “unquestioned obedience to authority”, favouring harsh judicial punishments, especially for those they considered weak. In fact, though women overall are significantly more likely to be victims than men, and to die as a result of domestic violence, studies have shown that physical abuse can be especially prevalent in same-sex relationships: lesbians experience physical abuse at a very similar rate to heterosexual women, and it is more common for gay men to experience abuse than their heterosexual counterparts.
It is now the time for charities, public services and schools to adopt a more inclusive and collaborative approach to tackling this huge social problem: we need much more than a proactive police service if 2016 is to see any improvement. Somewhere along the line, this country’s approaches to tackling domestic violence appear to have stagnated and the recent surge in 999 calls represent a collective voice demanding for more to be done. So enjoy your New Year’s Eve and Christmas holiday, but spare a thought for the sour side of the celebrations; the silence that surrounds it, and the suffering of those who live within that bubble of silence.