Domestic violence is a big problem in both America and Britain.
It’s hard to know exactly how big since many women do not report incidents and even when they do these incidents are under recorded by officials.
Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions in England won some plaudits this week for securing a rise in convictions for violence against women.
Organizations like Refuge and Victim Support were tentatively positive about this news, but warned that many women still do not report cases of domestic violence and when they do their cases are often not taken seriously.
It is right that people who commit these terrible crimes should be punished and held to account. A report by UNICEF on domestic violence puts the cases like this;
“Men should receive one consistent message from all sectors and levels of society – that those who perpetrate violence will be held accountable”
But shouldn’t we being trying to eliminate domestic violence and not only through making men so scared of being caught that they do not commit these crimes?
We will only eliminate domestic violence if we consider it as a problem centered on citizens’ relationships with each other, not as a problem to do with citizens’ relationship with the state or the police. As the UNICEF report correctly states;
“Violence in the domestic sphere is usually perpetrated by males who are, or who have been, in positions of trust and intimacy and power – husbands, boyfriends, fathers, fathers-in-law, stepfathers, brothers, uncles, sons, or other relatives”
Thinking about domestic violence as a problem that exists between citizens, as well as a law and order problem, can be helpful in highlighting at least three areas of effective preventative work, namely;
- The need for ‘routine enquiry’
- Combating isolation of women
- The need to encourage the challenge of men by their peers
- Routine enquiry
Routine enquiry means health workers and others routinely asking women whether they have experienced domestic violence, regardless of whether they are showing any symptoms. This approach takes away some of the stigma from reporting domestic violence and helps with the early identification of those at risk.
Linda Regan at the London Metropolitan University has found that in almost all cases of serious abuse the victim was known to one or more services but not necessarily identified as someone who was at risk. Routine enquiry helps with putting in place preventative measures.
2. Combating isolation of women
Isolation is one of several risk factors around domestic violence.
It is not as simple as saying that more isolated women are more vulnerable to domestic violence (although this is true). It is also the case that more isolated women find it harder to devise effect strategies to prevent domestic violence. By definition they have fewer friends or family members to call upon for help or advice and less social capital to use to access support services.
Paradoxically and sickeningly, becoming less isolated is also associated with domestic violence. As previously isolated women make new connections, male partners can feel threatened and may lash out.
This means we need to develop very carefully designed approaches to reducing the isolation of women in a managed fashion, potentially even one that involves the male partners.
3. The need to encourage the challenge of men by their peers
Our attitudes are significantly and subtly affected by people around us. What we consider normal will depend on what we see and hear. If men feel that it is normal to abuse women then they will more readily commit domestic violence. If men think it is taboo or unacceptable to hit women then they will be less likely to do so.
The Duluth Model is used to work with ‘batterers’ to robustly challenge their attitudes to domestic violence.
In addition to this, if we are going to eliminate domestic violence, rather than solely reducing re-offending rates, we need to think about how we can encourage men to be more open about their disapproval of domestic violence with their friends, family and colleagues.
I think many readers will have some problems with the three approaches to eliminating domestic violence that I have described here. I think this resistance comes from not wanting to consider the relationships between citizens as a political question, but I believe that it is exactly that.
Many people (including public officials) do not consider it their place to ask about people’s relationships. The old stereotype of the police officer that will not get involved in a ‘domestic’ still holds sway with many.
Whether we are talking about homophobia, racism, community spirit, innovation, caring for our loved ones, raising children, anti-social behaviour or domestic violence, we are talking about relationships between citizens as a public policy concern. This means new types of policy that requires officials with new skills and new techniques.