Beating domestic violence

None of the women saw their partners convicted; instead, they just saw their own lives destroyed
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The Independent Culture
I REMEMBER once talking to a woman who worked for Women's Aid in Greater Easterhouse, Glasgow, who said that when her father was young, 50-odd years ago: "He lived in the old Glasgow tenements with a courtyard in the middle. He said as a child you could hear them, night after night, the men beating the women up. It was completely accepted. It was like a joke, you'd just say, `Oh, there's so and so at it again'." If the women's movement of the last 30 years has done anything, hasn't it challenged that complete acceptance? Hasn't it enforced the realisation that violence against women is not a joke, but a crime?

A report published this week by Crisis explores the experiences of homeless women in London, Bristol, Brighton and Liverpool. Anwen Jones, the author, found the commonest reason for homelessness among women is domestic violence. These women whose partners beat them up ranged in age from 20 to 50, and none of them managed to challenge their partners' behaviour. None of them saw their partners convicted of any crime. Instead, they just saw their own lives destroyed. One of them, a woman called Jan, aged 30, said: "I lived with my boyfriend but he became abusive. When I left him I had nowhere to go." Jan was then attacked while sleeping rough. "The police took me to a recovery suite, but they were not very sympathetic because I had walked out on my boyfriend. I went back to the flat but he wouldn't leave. I walked round and round Bristol until I found a place at a women's hostel." How does Jan see her future? "I reckon by the end of the year I'll be dead," she told Anwen Jones.

This report will join a mountain of reports and statistics produced by universities and pressure groups and government departments, all testifying to a grim truth: we do still accept domestic violence. All the statistics testify to its frequency. Two women each week are murdered by their partners. And the latest figures published by the Home Office put the number of women who have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes at one in four of all women. Very few of these incidents will ever be reported to the police - and even of those that are, according to research carried out in Fulham, only one in ten will result in an arrest, and only one in a hundred will result in a conviction.

Occasionally the actions of individual politicians push domestic violence on to the agenda again: last week Jack Straw welcomed the establishment of a new magistrates court in Leeds, that opens today, and will specialise in domestic violence cases. But although this specialist court can be welcomed, since it will speed up hearings and provide a focus for probation and support services, it won't begin to deal with the major stumbling block that arises before that - that most cases don't get to any court, that most cases are never seen as crimes.

Why isn't domestic violence consistently seen as a crime in Britain?

One of the prime reasons is that, currently, the responsibility is loaded on to the vulnerable victim to make it one. The woman - and it is almost invariably a woman - who has experienced an average of 35 assaults by her partner before going to the police, who may be facing the loss of her house, the traumatising of her children, the destruction of her self- respect, is expected to make herself even more vulnerable. She is expected to pursue her abuser through the criminal justice system and then stand up in court to explain why he should be convicted. She knows what a risky action that will be. She may have heard him threatening her with murder, telling her that he'll be back to take revenge; she knows only too well that he is capable of carrying out his threats. No wonder she rarely feels up to taking on the risk.

For a long time feminists in Britain have looked enviously at the United States, where various projects, including a famous one in Duluth, Minnesota, have pioneered a new approach to domestic violence. In Duluth, even if the woman does not feel able to pursue her violent partner, the man can still stand trial. The police have taken on the responsibility of collecting evidence that does not rely on her word, and bringing a prosecution, whether or not she feels able to testify - so taking the onus of court action away from the victim. And the approach has worked. When it was imitated in San Diego, the domestic violence murder rate was cut by 66 per cent in the first year.

Why shouldn't that be the case here in Britain? Why shouldn't the responsibility for making domestic violence a crime be shifted away from the individual woman? Take, for instance, the famous case involving Sheryl and Paul Gascoigne. There was Sheryl, sporting vivid bruises and an arm in a sling, in every tabloid newspaper in the country. There was Paul, confessing at a press conference that he was "a disgrace". If the tabloids had photographed Paul with a stash of cocaine, and if he had confessed at a press conference to supplying it, the next stop would have been a criminal court. But because Sheryl didn't press charges, Paul didn't go to court. And so the general, unthinking acceptance of domestic violence was strengthened.

But now things might finally be starting to change. The police have for so long been loathed by feminists as the defenders of the status quo when it comes to belittling women's experiences of domestic and sexual violence. But their role is crucial if a real shift in dealing with domestic violence is to take place. And in a few new projects, including, most strikingly, one that is currently being piloted in Fulham, west London, the police are taking a leading part in trying to ensure that domestic violence is seen as a crime.

Helen Ball, a detective chief inspector in Fulham, has had a dream for years, a dream of transforming the way that police deal with domestic violence. "In the past, the police often walked away from the offence, even knowing that it would happen again," she says frankly. Now she has initiated a new approach by Fulham police, so that they take a pro-active role in collecting evidence to make a prosecution that doesn't rely on the word of the victim against the attacker. I talked to the police officers in Fulham dealing with these cases, and they showed me photographs of the injured women that they are dealing with; women with cuts and bruises all over their faces, looking resignedly into the camera.

"In the past," one told me, "when it came to domestic violence, we had the attitude that it was up to you, you had to deal with it. If you didn't want to proceed with the case, we'd drop it. Now, we take the approach that from the moment we're called, we do the work. We collect the evidence immediately - we actually take photographs of injuries or the trashed house, we interview the perpetrator, we interview the neighbours, we seek out all the corroborating evidence. If we can see an offence has been committed, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect your boyfriend, we'll make the arrest immediately, and hold him overnight, so he can't go on threatening you. Then the following day you might be scared. You might ring up and say, `I don't want to proceed with this'. And then we can say, `It's no longer you that's prosecuting him, it's us, it's the police'."

This project doesn't just rely on different behaviour by the police. After all, improved police practice can only have an effect on one part of the process. The other vital elements of the Fulham pilot are the advocates who support the victim through the entire process, and compulsory probation programmes to challenge the man's behaviour if he is convicted. But undoubtedly the change in police work is vital if domestic violence is ever going to be seen as a crime.

The project in Fulham is small, and it's only been going for a few months. But it could be the start of something big. The welfare of thousands upon thousands of women may eventually be affected by it.