What does it take to eliminate violence against women?
To launch our 16 Days of activism blog series, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Today is a useful reminder of what we should all be striving for as a society: the elimination of violence against women. But if you scrutinise many of our approaches to domestic abuse – both at policy level and on the ground – they can’t claim to contribute, even in an incremental way, towards this end. They are about managing it, not ending it.
Let’s examine three ways in which a change (and let’s not minimise the size of the change needed) could really help. Of course, there are far more than three. But three is a start.
First, in order to end violence against women we must acknowledge that in our own culture and woven into the very fabric of our society, violence against women is ignored, minimised, and even condoned.
Women lead in raising awareness of this, because they are faced with objectifying images every day. They know from bitter experience that if they report violence they are likely to be disbelieved or blamed. But men are becoming aware that they are constantly given permission to abuse their power: by the bombardment of objectifying and trivialising representations of women, by the glorification of abusive men – and they are saying this is not a permission they want.
It is just not enough for men to use their power and privilege with kindness. That would be easy. They have to share it. They have to give some of it up. Today of all days, we need them to stand up and say: “Let’s make a start.” Locally and nationally, in policy, in services, on the street, in the media, challenging sexist culture is essential. It’s risky for those who do it, but it’s less risky for men – and we need more of them to accept that fact.
Second, we must make a reality of the much-vaunted idea of “early intervention”. In domestic abuse, this has to mean enabling women to disclose much earlier. Women’s Aid has developed a new response to domestic abuse, Change that Lasts, which we are about to begin testing on the ground. The first step to Change that Lasts is creating local communities in which it is clear that domestic abuse is not condoned, and where there are plenty of safe places where a woman can disclose. She can do this knowing she will be believed, understood and directed towards support.
The police have a key role, but we know that around half of domestic abuse victims never contact the police. At the moment, our response to domestic abuse is centred on the criminal justice system – but women’s lives are not. Women are blamed and punished for “not engaging” with the police or with child safeguarding processes. If we really want to help women and children earlier, these are not the right systems to use.
Third, we must stop focusing narrowly on “managing risk”. Comforting as managing risk seems to be for statutory agencies, we must work together for a more ambitious aim: long-term recovery and independence for survivors. This is complex work. The services that deliver it are not costly – but they cost more than doing nothing, or providing support only for the duration of the criminal justice process (or not providing one at all if the survivor doesn’t pursue a criminal justice outcome). These services have a level of specialist knowledge that we must learn to value equally with that of professionals who work in public services.
The change can happen. We no longer use straitjackets on people with mental health problems. We no longer hit children in our schools. We no longer give smokers the right to damage the health of others, or drinkers to put their right to get home quickly above others’ right to safety.
But make no mistake, the changes that are needed to eliminate violence against women are of similar magnitude.
We’d better get on with it.
Follow the action on the website and on twitter at: #16Days
About the author
Polly Neate joined Women’s Aid in February 2013. She is a leading authority and prominent commentator and activist on domestic abuse, sexism and feminism, and has significantly increased the influence of Women’s Aid on behalf of survivors of domestic abuse and its federation of local specialist services.