Coronation Street has done more for victims of domestic abuse than the Tories have

Yasmeen and Geoff's storyline has got the nation talking about the issue in a way the government never has

Katy Ward
Thursday 30 April 2020 09:47 BST
Women's aid launches the lockdown campaign to highlight domestic abuse risks during coronavirus lockdown

When I was a child, my great aunt told me her husband had been a good man. “He never hit me where the bruises would show,” she said without irony. It’s 2020 and shockingly little has changed.

For decades, successive governments have failed to pass meaningful legislation on domestic abuse, allowing bruises like my great aunt’s to remain hidden. “Coercive and controlling behaviour”, for example, was not criminalised until 2015.

With the much-delayed Domestic Abuse Bill, described by the government as “the most comprehensive package ever to tackle this horrendous crime”, receiving its second reading in parliament yesterday (and with MPs such as Jess Phillips and Rosie Duffield, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, speaking admirably in support of it), it is tempting to believe a sea change is on its way. I’m not convinced.

What does the bill contain? As well as a statutory definition of domestic abuse, it covers measures such as safe housing and banning perpetrators from cross-examining victims in family court. Campaigners have broadly welcomed the bill, yet have concerns it doesn’t go far enough, particularly to safeguard LGBT and migrant victims. There have also been calls to ban the “rough sex gone wrong” defence in murder trials, and to introduce a domestic abusers register.

Yet the primary sticking point is not the bill’s contents but its timing. The bill may, as victims commissioner Dame Vera Baird says, be a “once in a generation opportunity”, but Westminster could, and should, have acted sooner. Towards the end of last year, the bill was kicked into the long grass by the snap election. The message was clear: domestic abuse took a backseat to political posturing.

Certainly for the thousands of vulnerable people currently trapped with a violent partner, the bill may prove too late. Calls to the National Domestic Abuse hotline have surged by 120% during lockdown; the Counting Dead Women Project recently reported that domestic homicide cases have doubled during lockdown.

What next? As the bill enters the committee stage, its success (or failure) will certainly be determined by its funding. In recent weeks, home secretary Priti Patel announced £2m to support domestic abuse services during the pandemic, a tiny fraction of the £393m Women’s Aid estimates is needed per year to fund domestic abuse services in England.

In sharp contrast to the government’s shoddy track record on domestic abuse, positive movement has, in recent times, emerged from a perhaps unexpected source: Coronation Street. For months, Corrie viewers have watched Yasmeen Nazir (Shelley King) endure psychological and, on occasion, physical abuse at the hands of her husband, Geoff. If teasers are to be believed, the storyline will reach its climax this week – Yasmeen is shown making a 999 call, claiming to have killed her husband.

Theresa May urges government to consider impact of lockdown on domestic abuse victims new

One of the most compelling elements of the Yasmeen and Geoff’s storyline has been its unflinching portrayal of the different guises abuse can take. We’ve seen Geoff gradually erode his wife’s self-esteem and alienate her from her family. His mistreatment hasn’t always been physical and we have, on occasion, felt unsure whether it constitutes abuse. This hinterland of uncertainty is one of an abuser’s most effective mechanisms of control.

It’s striking how much attention the show has drawn to domestic abuse compared to the government. While thousands took to Twitter this week to express horror at Geoff giving his wife an STI before calling her a “disease-ridden old tart”, few outside the small community of domestic abuse campaigners tweeted about the bill’s second reading.

One thing is certain: when soap writers do a better job than politicians of raising the profile of one of society’s most pressing issues, something needs to change.

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