Recognising the scourge of domestic violence has little to do with the central debate feminists and academics would have about whether better policing is the best way to stop domestic violence. Domestic violence is still a severely under-reported crime and some critics say arrest policies have exacerbated this problem. These policies require police officers responding to domestic violence calls to arrest alleged abusers if there is probable cause to believe assaults have taken place.
The intent of these laws was to spur a culture change in law enforcement, which had a long history of declining to intervene in domestic violence situations. But some say mandatory arrest discourages some women from reporting domestic violence because they fear their partners, sometimes a family’s sole earner, will be automatically arrested and thrown into jail. Arguable, but it has brought about a very practical change: prosecuting such cases as serious crimes instead of private family matters. Prosecution rates of domestic violence cases have increased but there is little conclusive evidence that they have significantly reduced the incidence of violence.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights reveals, for example, that one woman in 20 has been raped and that a third have suffered physical or sexual violence at some point since the age of 15. Such insights indicate a depressing state of affairs in a world that regards itself as civilised. And as technology has advanced, so, unfortunately, has the abuse. Thus, around one woman in 10 has experienced inappropriate advances on social media or been subjected to sexually explicit emails or text messages.
Globally, in the past year, the inclusion of a goal on gender equality in the sustainable development goals (SDGs) has been the biggest advance. The goal includes targets to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking, and to eliminate all harmful practices such as early or forced marriages and female genital mutilation. These are positive developments but leadership and coordination across UN agencies and by governments to drive progress has yet to emerge. Without these actions, the targets will not be realised.
The world is moving in the right direction in terms of laws to protect women and girls. Guatemala became the latest country to ban child marriages last week. Between 1995 and 2013, the percentage of countries that had established a legal minimum age of marriage for girls of at least 18 years increased from 76 percent to 89 percent. However, many countries with laws permit marriage under 18 years of age with parental consent or because customary or religious law can undermine civil law. Another harmful practice — female genital mutilation (FGM) – has had some positive developments. Nigeria banned the practice in May last year, a big step that could have knock-on effects in other African countries. Egypt and Kenya have also shown the enforcement of existing laws with a prosecution and several arrests. But changing the cultural and societal attitudes that allow violence against women remains a huge challenge.
Women who are victims of intimate partner violence have been identified by the mental health field for more than 30 years now. It is understood that domestic violence is part of gender violence and that many more women than men are the victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. While the term “victim” is not always considered politically correct, in fact, until battered women take back some control over their lives they may not truly be considered survivors.
Psychological symptoms such as battered woman syndrome (BWS) develop in some women and make it difficult for them to regain control. It is a mental disorder that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, long-term abuse. It is extremely dangerous primarily because it leads to learned helplessness or psychological paralysis, where the victim becomes so depressed, defeated and passive that she believes she is incapable of leaving the abusive situation. Though it may seem like an irrational fear, it feels absolutely real to the victim.
Feeling fearful and weak, and sometimes even still holding onto the hope that her abuser will stop hurting her, the victim remains with her abuser, continuing the cycle of domestic violence and strengthening her existing BWS. As with any domestic violence situation, women with BWS should contact police and report their abuser. The police will make an arrest and the prosecution will hopefully advance but sadly, at this point, many battered women may try to recant their statements. They begin to feel sorry for their abuser or may fear violence if the police let him go. Finally, fear from and sympathy towards the abuser encrusts the canvas of domestic violence with daubes of shame and survival guilt.
When exploring battered women’s protective strategies, the first question to ask is, “Protection from what?” Protection from further violence is a natural and obvious answer to this question but it is not the only answer. Many other domains of a woman’s life are also threatened by battering: her financial stability, the well-being and safety of her children, her social status and the degree to which she is subjected to a stigmatised identity, her psychological health and sense of self-worth, and her hopes and dreams for the course of her life. These are just a few of the areas that are routinely threatened by a woman’s abusive husband. Indeed, the threats to these domains may in some cases be greater than the threats of injury or physical pain.
One neglected issue has been government investment and engagement with civil society, especially women’s groups. A new programme, known as Drive by police and crime commissioners, and backed by domestic abuse charities, is being launched in the UK, which will aim at the most dangerous offenders by providing one-to-one support to change their behaviour. As the problem of violence against women and girls is elevated in global policy circles, the activists and critics who put the issue on the map are increasingly being left out of the discussions. But these are the people who will identify emerging issues and ensure that the development of policies and services remain responsive to the needs of women and girls. They echo the concerns of women and girls. Their voices are critical for future progress.