When a bill to combat violence against women and domestic violence went before the House of Commons earlier this month, two MPs took exception. Philip Davies MP – who has also just been appointed to the Women and Equalities Committee – reportedly attempted to filibuster the bill on the grounds that it focused only on violence against women. He argued that men are also victims of domestic violence and should be treated equally by the law.
In the end, the bill was passed by 135 votes to two. But there is good reason to focus specifically on violence against women. There are differences between men’s and women’s experiences of domestic violence.
The actual purpose of the bill is to oblige the government to ensure that the UK complies with a Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – known as the Istanbul Convention. The UK has signed, but not yet ratified this treaty.
Once it does so, the government will have to “exercise due diligence to prevent and protect against violence against women, to prosecute and punish perpetrators and to provide reparations for victims”. There is good evidence to show that the UK currently falls short on several of these measures.
The most recent findings of the Crime Survey for England and Wales show that women are more likely to say that they have experienced domestic abuse than men, with an estimated 1.2m female victims compared to 651,000 male victims, throughout the year ending March 2016. The difference between the number of male and female victims (506,000) is at its lowest, compared with previous years.
But these statistics are compiled from the answers to a questionnaire, which is filled in on a laptop by respondents aged 16 to 59 years old. This type of survey generally shows smaller differences in the numbers of male and female victims, because the questions do not explore context, motive or the seriousness of the incident: a slap or a kick is treated the same, regardless of whether a serious or minor injury results.
What’s more, the crime survey does not cover older victims; the Femicide Census records that 50 women aged 66 and over were killed by a partner or former partner. And while the Crime Survey shows comparable levels of physical injury inflicted on men and women, other studies do not.
These studies have demonstrated that domestic violence is most often perpetrated by men on women. And, while there are male victims of abuse, it is overwhelmingly women who suffer chronic abuse, post-separation abuse, serious abuse such as strangulation and suffocation, severe injury, sexual abuse and death.
In his speech, Davies argued that men under-report more than women, and that the incidence and severity of violence against them is underestimated as a result. But the reasons for any under-reporting are relevant. For example, in one study, most men did not report feeling afraid as a result of the woman’s violence but said, rather, that they were “not bothered”, “impressed” or that the woman was “justified”. Most agreed that the woman’s violence was “not serious” whereas both men and women described men’s violence as “serious” or “very serious”.
Indeed, the Femicide Census records that 936 women were killed by men in England and Wales between 2009 and 2015: 64% were killed by current or former partners, and 76% of these victims were killed during the first year after separation. The census also quotes ONS statistics, showing that 44% of female homicides were killed by partners or former partners, compared with 6% of male victims. Killing, it says, is the “ultimate act of control”.
Women have different motivations, including self-defence, and use different forms of violence, compared to men. Men’s violence can more often be thought of as coercive control. It is part of a pattern of behaviour which has been described as “intimate terrorism”, where violence is used as part of a strategy to control the victim through isolation, intimidation, degradation, humiliation and deprivation of money. Physical abuse and threats, combined with these other forms of abuse mean the victim feels trapped and unable to escape the control of the perpetrator. In heterosexual relationships, this kind of abuse, says Johnson, a researcher, is perpetrated “almost entirely by men, not women”.
The differences in the findings of the Crime Surveys and research that reveals far greater disparities between the behaviour and experiences of men and women has been explained as being attributable to different methodologies. Those involved in intimate terrorism are unlikely to participate in social surveys like the Crime Survey. In contrast, researchers drawing their samples from refuges and medical and legal settings find a far greater proportion of women subject to intimate terrorism.
The criminal justice system’s response to the problem of domestic violence has, historically, been poor. Critics have pointed out that the police and judiciary show a lack of understanding about the nature and seriousness of domestic violence. This, in turn, has led to bad practice, which can affect the outcomes of cases, and could contravene the terms of the Istanbul Convention.
Yet the law is changing to reflect what’s being learnt about domestic violence. For example, it is now an offence to engage in controlling or coercive behaviour, which means that most of the behaviour encompassed by “intimate terrorism” is now categorised as criminal.
What’s more, police have gained further powers of arrest, and Domestic Violence Protection Notices enable the police to remove the perpetrator from the home, and ask the magistrates court for an order that could bar the perpetrator from the home for 14-28 days.
But while the law has progressed, the way it is implemented continues to attract criticism. A report of an official inspection of police performance shows that, although police attitudes have improved, there were still cases where negative attitudes meant that victims were reluctant to report again.
There were further issues. Some police failed to identify repeat victims. Some were not building evidence-led cases – instead, they relied on the victim’s support, which might not be forthcoming. Some did not take emotional abuse seriously. Arrest, charging and caution rates varied. Often, police did not act on breaches. Most importantly, they did not understand the dynamics of domestic violence and this led to poor risk assessment, leaving victims in danger.
Recent figures suggest that prosecution rates have improved. However, while a decision to charge was made in 70% of cases, and a conviction followed in 68% of these, almost all convictions were the result of guilty pleas. Failure to convict was usually because of problems with the evidence. And when there is a conviction, media reports suggest that sentencing can be lenient.
Ratifying the Istanbul Convention could be an added catalyst to address these shortcomings, which could benefit men and women who are domestic violence victims alike. But there can be no doubt that it is women who need change the most.