How common is domestic abuse?
We know from our work, and the work of the Women’s Aid federation of services, that domestic abuse is very common, however this is often difficult to accurately quantify. Domestic abuse is a largely hidden crime, occurring primarily at home.
Women often don’t report or disclose domestic abuse to the police (HMIC, 2014) and may underreport domestic abuse in surveys, particularly during face-to-face interviews (ONS, 2015). In addition, prevalence estimates do not take into account important context and impact information, for example whether the violence caused fear, who experienced multiple incidents and who experienced coercive controlling behaviour. When these factors are taken into account the gendered nature of domestic abuse becomes clearer.
- There are no reliable prevalence data on domestic abuse but the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) offers the best data available. According to these data, for the year ending March 2020, an estimated 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (ONS, 2020). However, it is important to note that these data do not take into account important context and impact information, such as whether the violence caused fear, who the repeat victims were and who experienced violence in a context of power and control. When these factors are taken into account the gendered nature of domestic abuse becomes much more apparent. See ‘Domestic abuse is a gendered crime’.
- On average the police in England and Wales receive over 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour. (HMIC, 2015)
- According to CSEW data for the year ending March 2018, only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months reported the abuse to the police.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of collecting statistics.
- One is to use data that have been collected for another purpose – for example, figures for recorded crime, or for prosecutions, or for numbers of court orders applied for and made.
- The other way is to ask people directly about the issue – for example, their experiences of certain kinds of crimes.
Data that has been collected for a different purpose – often by a government agency or other official body – may be seen in some respects as more “objective”; however, they are subject to whatever classification criteria that body is applying.
For example, the process by which an incident of domestic abuse becomes recorded as a “crime” involves several stages, starting with the decision by the victim whether or not to report an incident, followed by the responses of the police (e.g. whether or not to record the incident), the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, and so on.
Asking people about their experiences may result in information that is better suited to a particular purpose – but is also subject to various limitations:
- It is more time consuming – and hence more expensive
- What questions are asked and how they are asked lead to different responses – some being more reliable and more meaningful than others
- Results will be based on a sample of the population rather than everyone, and will therefore be subject to some degree of sampling error
- Sometimes the sample will be based in one geographical area, or include a particular kind of person only, and will not therefore be universally applicable.
How reliable are domestic abuse statistics?
When looking at any statistics, there are two issues to consider:
- Reliability – i.e. are these results replicable? – would another person or organisation asking exactly the same questions, or collecting the same kinds of information, come up with the same figures?
- Validity – i.e. are they meaningful?
Factors which can affect both reliability and validity include:
- The definition of domestic violence and/or abuse which is used.
- How information is collected who or what.
- How many people or organisations are included who is collecting the information, and for what purpose.
Most domestic abuse statistics (e.g. crime figures) are based on specific incidents and kinds of behaviour.
However, in Women’s Aid’s view, domestic abuse has to be seen within a context of power and control, which is usually (though not always) gender-based.
Repeated and escalating abuse which takes place within a context of fear and intimidation does not easily show up in an incident-based form of statistical record; and emotional abuse – which may be perpetrated in various ways, and with various degrees of subtlety – may be completely disregarded, particularly when the focus is on crimes.
Information about people’s experiences of domestic violence may be collected in different ways:
- By written questionnaire which may be posted or emailed to a sample of potential respondents. This procedure is rarely used in domestic abuse research, and is likely to result in a low response rate, under-reporting, and low validity and reliability.
- By written questionnaire which may be accessed via the internet, or a magazine, newspaper or other publication. In this case, respondents are self-chosen, and there is no way of judging whether or not their experiences are typical of the population as a whole.
- By asking in a telephone interview: privacy cannot be assured, and it can be dangerous for respondents (who may therefore tend not to disclose domestic abuse.)
- By asking them face to face – as in the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Both validity and reliability are improved, as is the response rate; but under-reporting is common.
- Self-completion, after contact has been made face to face, and privacy assured. This is the preferable method, as it maximises both the respondent’s safety, and the reliability of the data: many victims of domestic abuse are reluctant to disclose the abuse they have experienced in face to face interviews.
Further information and support
If would like more information about domestic abuse go to: The Survivor’s Handbook
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). (2015) Increasingly everyone’s business: A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse. Published online: HMIC, p. 28
Office for National Statistics (ONS). (2020). Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2020. Published online: ONS