Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Words but no action? The government's change to domestic abuse laws.

After much campaigning by VAWG charities and organisations, including fantastic research conducted in my home city of Bristol by the Centre for Research on Gender Based Violence and the NSPCC, the government has extended domestic violence laws to include children – i.e. teenage relationships. The law now recognises that teenagers experience domestic abuse in partner relationships that is separate from child abuse. 

And it’s about time. Research suggests that girls aged 16-19 are the age group who are most likely to experience domestic abuse – with 12.7% of women reporting some kind of domestic abuse last year (6.2% men – source BCS quoted in Guardian). 

The research from 2009 conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University surveyed teenagers about their experiences of intimate partner violence with shocking and frightening results. 75% of girls surveyed reported emotional abuse, 33% of girls had suffered sexual abuse including rape, and 25% reported physical abuse from their boyfriends. The rate of physical abuse rose to 75% for girls with partners who are more than two years their senior. 

I still find those numbers hard to stomach. 75% of teenage girls with a partner over two years older than them has experienced violence from that boyfriend. 75%. 

Along with the high rates of violence in teen relationships is an acceptance that this kind of behaviour is normal. This is backed up by findings from Haven who surveyed young people to understand their attitudes towards sexual assault (a summary of the full findings are quoted in this post).They include that 43% of young people asked did not believe that if their partner said ‘no’ to having sex, and they had sex with them anyway, that this would be rape. On a more anecdotal level, I have spoken online to rape counsellors who have told me that girls simply accept violence because they believe it’s what you have to do to have a boyfriend, to have someone ‘love’ you. Let’s not forget in context of this that teen media tells girls having a boyfriend is the most important thing in the world evah. 

So in the face of what is an overwhelming crisis in the levels of violence against girls, it’s good that the government are standing up and saying that it’s a crisis that must be recognised. 

But in essence, that’s all they’re doing. They’re simply saying it should be recognised. 

Because the domestic violence sector has already been cut by around 31%,  and those cuts are going to get worse. In fact, the introduction of universal credit could lead to every refuge being forced to close its doors, domestic violence charities have warned. Already 230 women are turned away from refuges every day because they’re simply aren’t enough places to protect women from a crime that affects a quarter of us in our lifetimes.  According to the British Crime Survey, 1.2 million women experience domestic abuse each year in the UK, and that’s not including the teenage girls that the law now recognises as victims of the crime. As refuges close, as support services close and lose their funding, where are women and girls supposed to go to get the help and care they so desperately need? 

It’s no good for the government to say that they care about domestic abuse of teenage girls when their administration is allowing the dismantling of a system that will protect them from the impact of violence. It’s just words, again. 

Another facet to this is that we all know that one of the best ways to challenge the attitudes and beliefs that allow and excuse violence in teen relationships is through education. But just as the last government was finally about to push through mandatory sex and relationships education that would include a focus on consent and respect, as well as the biological side, progress under the Coalition in the this area has stalled. There’s a squeamishness about sex education and a stubborn refusal to accept that all children need to be taught about consent. In fact, in this area we seem to be taking steps backwards, with proposals from Gove last year to use sex ed to focus on marriage as the superior form of relationship.  And let’s not forget Dorries’ failed proposals to tackle teen violence through abstinence education for girls.  So again, whilst the decision to recognise violence in teen relationships for what it is – the crime of domestic abuse – is right, we need to see action taken to ensure the causes of that crime are tackled in schools through education. 

Back in 2010, Theresa May addressed the Women’s Aid conference to say that the Coalition would bring actions, not words to the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women and girls.

But all I’m seeing are words. Words in law books, words at conferences, words from the dispatch box. 

And the only actions I’m seeing are those that are devastating a sector that is dedicated to saving the lives of women and girls. Actions that are ignoring the voices of women and girls who need help, who need support. Those aren’t the actions we want. 

One final thing. Since the 1st January this year, over 78 women and girls have been murdered as a result of gender-based violence. 

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