Feminism and domestic violence: Impact on law and policy
Since the late 1990s, a number of government initiatives have been devised to tackle domestic violence, all of them focusing on women as victims; civil remedies in cases of domestic violence have been strengthened; and there has been law reform to address feminist criticisms of the way in which crimes involving violence against women have been dealt with by the police and in the courts.
Moreover, it is not only the substantive law that has changed; official discourse and practice has also been affected by feminist research and activism. For instance, guidance issued to the police and also Crown Prosecution Service policy acknowledge that the majority of violent and repeated assaults between intimates are perpetrated by men on their female partners. In addition, both the guidance and the policy document refer to domination, abuse of power and control, as well as to post-separation violence and to women’s persisting fear. Even the judiciary, who have been criticised for not treating domestic violence sufficiently seriously, may not be impervious. At least one judge has recently said that there is a ‘wider appreciation of the profound and often long-term effects on women and children of serious and chronic domestic violence’. And he himself accepts that domestic violence is a gendered problem and that it is linked to control and domination.
Admittedly, it is still the case that women who are abused face enormous difficulties in getting help and protection from the law and agencies of the state. But the momentum for change has been maintained and still more reforms are being contemplated. Complaints about lenient sentencing in domestic violence cases are being addressed. Specialist domestic violence courts are being piloted. Priority is being given to training for prosecutors and the judiciary. Better information for victims is now regarded as necessary to reduce risks where a perpetrator is released. Measures are being taken to ensure that child contact is safe. More refuges are planned, as well as outreach and resettlement services.
There can be no doubt that feminist research and the efforts of domestic violence activists have greatly contributed to these initiatives, and that feminism has had an important influence on the way that domestic violence has come to be understood. Newburn and Stanko have observed that ‘certain forms of victimisation only become visible when they do, because of the campaigning work of representative groups’. The role of modern moral entrepreneurs in this context is one that has been fulfilled by domestic violence activists along with feminist and pro-feminist researchers. As a result of these people’s efforts, domestic violence is now, to a large extent, perceived as a serious social problem and, in particular, as a problem of men and masculinity.
In order to achieve what they have, it was necessary for these ‘entrepreneurs’ to show that domestic violence affected large numbers of women in profound ways. This the campaigners were certainly able to do. For one thing, abused women themselves made the problem visible. They both articulated it and provided evidence of the needs it created. As more and more women began to seek shelter in overcrowded refuges, activists not only tried to deal with the practical challenges they faced, but also sought to raise public awareness. And as the extent of the problem began to become apparent, public pressure mounted.
Alongside the work of domestic violence activists, the work of researchers and scholars provided further evidence of the plight of abused women. Using in-depth interviews with women as well as analysis of official documents, they managed to ‘fill out the statistics with human dimensions and make the social facts comprehensible’.
Men as victims