Sunday, 24 July 2011

Clare's Law isn't good enough

Last week saw politicians from across the political spectrum discuss the possibility of introducing Clare’s Law – named in memory of Clare Wood who was murdered in 2009 by a man she met online. The proposed law would allow people to contact the police to check whether their new or potential partner has a history of intimate partner violence. The hope is that this knowledge would be used to get out of the relationship before the violence starts. The proposal has support from Hazel Blears and is being considered by Theresa May, and last week Michael Brown of the Greater Manchester Police (where Clare was killed) spoke on Women’s Hour in support. However feminists and anti violence campaigners are not so keen to embrace the proposed change wholeheartedly, and see some serious problems in adopting Clare’s Law.

Because the majority of victims and survivors of intimate partner violence are women, and the vast majority of perpetrators are men, I will follow how other news and blogging outlets have covered this story and refer to this law in relation to women. This is not intended to silence or deny the problems of intimate partner violence across genders, or to suggest that Clare’s Law only applies to straight, cis men and women.

One clear problem with Clare’s Law is that most incidences of intimate partner violence aren’t reported to the police; in fact it is believed that only 23% of victims go to the police. Therefore it is likely that a lot of perpetrators of violence are not going to be on the police list when women phone up to check. This could have an effect of leading women into a false sense of security – particularly in light of what we know about how domestic violence often works. The violence can start with the perpetrator isolating his partner, building up slowly – if a woman has been reassured that her partner doesn’t have a violent history, this could have serious implications.

A further problem is the impact this law could have on victim-blaming, something that is already rife when we consider the public’s reaction to intimate partner violence. What happens if a woman was informed that her partner has a history of violence, but decides to stay because he excuses it, makes promises, tells her it was all a lie or a misunderstanding, or that he’s changed. If he then goes on to be violent towards her, will she be blamed? Already, cases of domestic abuse are surrounded by conversations around ‘why did she stay when she knew what he was like’, ‘why did she stay so long’, and domestic violence murders are reported as ‘crimes of passion’ or ‘man kills nagging wife’. Women are so often blamed for the violence committed against them, and there are many concerns about how this law could encourage these pernicious victim-blaming myths.

Something has to be done about tackling domestic violence. Two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex partner, and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence – a figure that goes up to 1 in 3 when talking about teen girls. 2,000 women a week are raped and the majority of these women will know their rapist. However I really question as to whether Clare’s Law is the answer or even part of the answer to this horrific crime. And this is because the emphasis is on the woman to avoid or prevent violence happening to her, not on preventing violence by focusing on the perpetrator.

So many anti-violence campaigns seek to police women’s behaviour, from anti rape campaigns at Christmas warning women to ‘let your hair down, not your guard’, to the proposed Clare’s Law which puts the responsibility on women to find out if their partner is violent, and then expecting them to leave. I believe instead that in order to prevent violence against women and girls, we need to focus on those who commit violence. This means more education around respect and consent. It means education around healthy and happy relationships. It means holding the perpetrators to account and eradicating myths that blame the victim. It means justice for victims and survivors and proper punishment for perpetrators. And it means more care taken by the police and the CPS to protect women and prevent violence happening.

Take Clare Wood’s case as an example. By the time she was murdered, she had reported her partner’s violence to the police many times. The Police Complaints Commission’s report on how Manchester police handled the case was critical of the way the police handled Clare Wood’s reports that her partner had been violent and threatened to kill her. She is not alone. Chrissie Chambers and her daughter were murdered earlier this year by her violent ex-partner. She had reported to the police that he had sent her 100 threatening text messages days before she was killed. Despite a restraining order being in place, he was still able to access the house and kill her and her 2-year old.

Why were these women not protected more? Why were their cries for help not taken more seriously? Why do men who murder their wives only get 18 months in prison, as happened in the case of Jonathan Wicks who beat and hit his wife over the head.

It is worth mentioning that this year the coalition’s cuts have resulted and will continue to result in massive cuts in the domestic violence sector. Women’s Aid predicted in April that 60% of refuge services will no longer receive council funding, reducing refuge places from 400 to 160. 70,000 women and children will be left without the support they need to escape a life of violence. So it is hard not to feel cynical that Clare’s Law is being proposed at a point where women who need refuge, who need help to escape violence, are struggling to access the assistance they so desperately need.

The responsibility to end violence against women does not lie with women being told to avoid violence. It isn’t a natural hazard that we can take precautions to prevent. The responsibility to end violence against women and girls lies with the perpetrator. They are the ones who need to stop being violent. They are the ones who can prevent violence. Let’s see more education, let’s see justice for victims, let’s see improvements in the ways the police handle reports of intimate partner violence, and let’s see an end to victim blaming. There is no single solution to the terrifying epidemic of violence against women and girls. But there are things we can do. And I don’t believe that it starts and ends with Clare’s Law.

If you are affected by the issues in this post you can call:

Women’s Aid: 0808 2000 247

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