“We are blind to an epidemic of domestic abuse”

When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.

The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.

According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.

Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.

Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.

Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it?

The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.

Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?

Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.

Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.

According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.

Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.

I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.

Joan Smith

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