We must do more for women experiencing violence in the UK

violence against women UK Candid Orange

In the third instalment of the Candid Orange and This Violence is Not a Tragedy collaboration, we are raising further awareness about the current situation of gender-based violence in the UK. If you are wanting to know more about violence against women across the world, go to our article here.

If someone were to ask you about the differences between the UK in 2001 and today, you’d hardly be stuck for answers. Yet, despite what some may consider a deepening awareness of progressive social attitudes in the last two decades, how is it that the number of women reporting violence to the police has stayed the exact same?

Violence against women in the UK today

Given that 8 million women in the UK will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life, and some 6 million are predicted to live through sexual assault, we need to evaluate precisely what constitutes the current outlook for victims and survivors of such experiences. Despite hailing itself as one of the safest places to be a woman in the world, 83% of women living in the UK never report the violence they suffer. Knowing this, and the fact that an average of two women die each week at the hands of their partner, raises difficult questions about the continuing cycle of gender-based violence in this country.

Precisely, why is there such a disparity in the number of women experiencing violence versus the number of women who report it? There are countless reasons as to why this number has remained unchanged, from entrenched myths about what constitutes ‘real’ abuse to fearing social stigma and for your own wellbeing. Yet the glaring report which is made by survivors tells us that many women do not trust the justice system to seriously handle their case with the dignity it warrants.

Reasons for not speaking up are nuanced to say the least, but if you have ever taken an interest in the domestic abuse situation in the UK, they come as no surprise. Whereas a vast majority of those with an active interest in women’s rights will understand the multitude of intersecting problems faced by those experiencing violence, a shamefully large percentage of people continue to lean toward the typical stance of victim-blaming, as well as essentialising issues of violence to class or cultural differences.

When news reports (Candid Orange not excluded) regurgitate figures from the Office of National Statistics to display the deep-rooted violence that exists within our national community, we almost drift further and further away from the real-life implications of violence against women (VAW). With cases of abuse standing in their millions and continuing to rise, it is more vital than ever to know who are the women living through violence.

Countless studies show varying trends of who constitute the victims of gender violence in the UK, from differing ages, locations, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural differences. Few reports, however, outline the damage that can be caused by categorising perpetrators and victims in such detail, with some news outlets utilising these figures for their own political agenda. What is certain is that violence is witnessed across all groups of women in the UK, and the rate of VAW is on the rise.

What support systems are in place?

Police and judicial response to violence against women in the UK should be inherently geared toward safeguarding the victim and allowing them to have as much dignity in their journey to get away from this abuse. When looking at investigations into these services, it is clear to see why women are failed by this system – whether police reluctance to ‘criminalise’ a perpetrator or even local councils tweeting victim-blaming statements.

In 2017, the Centre for Women’s Justice submitted a complaint to the national watchdog which accused police forces of failing to protect women at every step of the legal process. Nogah Ofer, a solicitor who prepared the super-complaint, cited the lack of resources and weak guidance, training and supervision amongst units dealing with domestic abuse and sexual offences.

When so few women choose to report violence to the police, the cycle of violence can in some ways be allowed to continue – not merely for individual victims but for nationwide attitudes toward violence against women. Seemingly, there is a culture of silence in the United Kingdom when it comes to cases of gender-based violence; a culture perpetuated by the fact that, nationwide, the police are referring fewer and fewer domestic abuse cases to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision. Referrals fell by an eye-watering 19% to 79,965 in March 2020.

Seeking refuge

The same level of dignity desired from prosecution services should certainly be reflected in refuges accepting these women escaping violent situations. Plenty of these support services exist and do provide care to those most in need, but they simply cannot cater for all women seeking a place. Since austerity measures were set in motion, support services for women who have fled violence were slashed by 65% by 2018. Understandably, refuges can only work with the tools they have been given; stories of women sleeping rough when no beds have been available in refuges are unfortunately too common.

More nuanced, intersectional care should be a requirement at refuges across the nation, certainly given the broad spectrum of women who find themselves living through violent experiences. A damning article released by The Guardian last year revealed that women who could not speak English were being routinely turned away from refuges across the nation, and instead beds were given to those who were deemed easier to care for. In response to this lack of cultural awareness within many support networks, organisations have sprung up around the UK which seek to provide care for women whose own backgrounds are not properly catered to by a typical refuge. Charities such as IKWRO and Karma Nirvana focus on victims whose experiences stem from countries in conflict who have sought asylum in the UK.

Media portrayals of GBV survivors

It’s often challenging to properly contextualise statistics about the women who face violence in the UK, certainly when they appear as voiceless protagonists in a spread in The Sun about a “jilted lover” retaliating out of passion. The disparity between portrayals of victims does makes us wonder exactly where their narrative is situated in portrayals of domestic abuse and VAW in the media.

Countless studies have shown that, although the majority of journalists present cases of domestic abuse and violence against women with sensitivity, voices belonging to those who have lived through these experiences are notably absent. Despite the British public being increasingly exposed to the wider social context that surrounds this violence in the media and in ‘pop culture’ portrayals, direct accounts from women who have survived these incidents are usually mediated through figures working at organisations and charities. There is, of course, logic to this. Representatives from such institutions will still have an informed opinion, and are witness to the consequences of such violence. Yet with organisations such as Angles hoping to connect journalists with survivors of abuse who seek to change the narrative of violence, it raises an uncomfortable question: are women being side-lined from their own stories for the sake of article clicks and newspaper sales?

In the UK at least, some academics have suggested that the British public are so rarely confronted with survivors’ voices in the media that ugly narratives of exactly who the victims are have begun to form. In a round table hosted by LSE, it was discussed whether the British media primarily portrays victims as women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those from non-white communities. If true, how damaging is this portrayal for women ‘belonging’ to the two aforementioned groups, as well as those who do not? Not only would it continue to peddle archaic attitudes towards people of different classes and races outside of the white, middle-class canon, but it could undermine the need to further investigate the ways in which the wide range of women survivors can be helped in these situations.

In one particular investigation from the University of Hertfordshire, the tactics employed by two British newspapers when covering cases of domestic violence were found to be intrinsically different. Whereas, broadly speaking, The Guardian was found to take a more respectful approach to victims, articles from The Sun showed a shameful tendency to sexualise the violence which had taken place and often blame victims for their inaction. Surprisingly, this controversial tabloid somewhat encapsulates the nuance in the coverage of violence against women, with their repeated sexualisation and belittlement of women directly juxtaposed with what the Leveson Inquiry called an “admirable” campaign against rape and domestic violence.

Discussions about gender-based violence, what has been described by the UN as the “one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today”, rarely seem focused on the UK. Yet with 1 in 4 women facing violence in their lifetimes, profound change to our support systems is, to put it mildly, significantly overdue.