Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: In the month we celebrate International Women’s Day, we need to do much more to stop violence against women and girls
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Family
It’s 50 years since Erin Pizzey opened the first refuge for ‘battered wives’ in Chiswick, west London. The small house became a home for hundreds of women and children, offering protection, security, advice and assistance to help them to rebuild their lives after escaping abusive partners. It led to the creation of Refuge, which remains the country's biggest single provider of domestic and gender-based violence services. Its website confirms that it supports ‘over 6,000 women and children on any given day’.
While a student at the University of Warwick, I volunteered at Coventry Haven, a refuge for women who were experiencing or were survivors of domestic abuse (Googling it, I found that not only is it still going strong, but it also celebrates its 50-year anniversary in 2022). The language we use to describe domestic abuse may have changed since 1972 but the problem has not. In lockdown, the Office for National Statistics reported that between April and June 2020, there was a 65 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, compared with the first three months of that year (Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview: November 2020, 25 November 2020). Karen Ingala Smith, who runs the ‘Counting Dead Women’ project, estimated that the first three weeks of the first lockdown saw the highest number of domestic abuse killings of women by men for 11 years (‘Coronavirus doesn’t cause men’s violence against women’, 15 April 2020).
The Lancet has just published the findings of a survey of intimate partner violence against women, which found it to be a ‘global public health problem with many short-term and long-term effects on the physical and mental health of women and their children’ (Lynnmarie Sardinha et al, ‘Global, regional, and national prevalence estimates of physical or sexual, or both, intimate partner violence against women in 2018’, 16 February 2022). The database comprises 366 studies, capturing the responses of 2m women from 161 countries. It found that one in four women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a male partner before the age of 50. The studies were based on self-reported experiences and were between 2000 and 2018, ie, before COVID-19; therefore, the true scale of the violence is likely to be higher.
In 2020, I went to Australia to look at multi-disciplinary approaches to legal practice (having been successful in my application for a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship). Winston Churchill believed that we should ‘travel to learn and return to inspire’, and I was inspired by what I saw in Australia: holistic advice, health justice partnerships, doctors, social workers, therapists and lawyers all working together. Almost every legal practice told me ‘family violence’ was one of the biggest issues they had to deal with and they needed this joined up approach to make real change for their clients.
In Alice Springs, I visited the inspirational Central Australian Women’s Legal Service. Phynea Clarke, the CEO of the project, described her lawyers as ‘quasi social workers’ who support people and work alongside their indigenous client service officers. The organisation provides a complete package in terms of client needs: attending and supporting women, going to court, to Centrelink (the social security agency in Australia), to the public housing provider, to referral agencies and to police stations with their clients. Sometimes, the distances to the nearest town can be hundreds of miles and clients have no transport, so the service also has its own car. Phynea told me: ‘It is apparent early on that there is a legal matter to resolve but there is also nearly always a housing, mental health, food and disclosure issue. It is like a big jigsaw puzzle. It’s the lawyer’s job to identify and explore all the issues, but clients won’t reveal information until they are in a quiet safe place.’
I brought the idea of a holistic service back to Hammersmith Law Centre and we were successful in obtaining funding for a women’s crisis navigator, but the funding was short-term, and the project ended last year before it could really get going. Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, advice provision has become increasingly polarised and we now advise in our silos, which can have a huge impact on outcomes. Family lawyers and housing lawyers don’t share a common knowledge of legal rights and are often located in different firms or centres, but women fleeing domestic abuse will need both family and housing advice to make an informed decision on whether to stay or leave.
There are some positives, though: we have the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (although it doesn’t go far enough); the first domestic abuse commissioner was appointed in 2019; we have Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors (FLOWS) run through RCJ Advice; Isabella Mulholland from the Public Interest Law Centre set up the Domestic Abuse and Housing Forum in 2021; and in February, seven leading law firms launched the Domestic Abuse Response Alliance (DARA) to provide pro bono legal advice and representation to survivors of domestic abuse in need of protective injunctions. Closer to home, I am part of a steering group setting up a new Law Centre in north Wales that will be co-located with a domestic abuse organisation so that we can deliver a more holistic service, and LAG will be publishing a new book this year on domestic abuse and housing. Holistic advice, though, won’t solve the issues of violence against women and girls on its own; it will require a much larger cultural and societal change for that to happen.