Domestic violence: whose problem is it?

January 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment

In a previous post, which suggested a few measures government could take to reduce domestic violence (or at the very least improve care for its victims), I mentioned the necessity for greater provision of refuges where women could seek shelter from their tormentors. Conveniently, this survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission details the extent of the current provision – or lack thereof – and produces some quite troubling figures.

The commission found that one in four local authorities in Britain has no specialised support services whatsoever, that a quarter of the rape crisis centres which do exist fear closure or cuts in funding, and that ethnic minority women – whose circumstances can be slightly different due to the intersection of culture, relgion and misogyny – are particularly poorly-served by current provision. In short, we’re just not doing enough to care for victims.

To put this right, the EHRC has decided to write to those local authorities which don’t provide a specialised service and warned that the commission may take them to court for breaching the 2006 Equality Act, which requires them to promote gender equality. They argue that “because violence against women is such a major cause of women’s inequality, public bodies should ensure adequate support for women in such circumstances.”

Even if the commission did take these councils to court, it’s not a foregone conclusion that they’d prove why their interpretation of the act is correct, and I’ll leave that question in the hands of those more well-versed in British law. But just assuming the commission isn’t able to force councils into action through the courts, is there a case for legally mandating councils to provide shelter for victims of domestic violence?

It’s certainly possible to construct a compelling case for why they should. A quarter of all women and 15% of men will be victims of abuse at some stage of their lives, two women a week are killed by current or former partners and an incident of abuse is reported to the police every minute. On top of the misery & pain it causes, domestic violence also costs public services an estimated £3bn a year, and costs the wider economy an estimated (and eye-watering) £23bn. If shelters/crisis centres could contribute just a little to reducing the costs to the state and the wider economy, they would prove not just morally essential, but fiscally sensible.

Equally, though, one could argue that the burden for providing such centres shouldn’t be placed on already-overstretched local authorities. Whilst it’s unacceptable for victims to have to make 120-mile round trips just to receive counselling, it’s also true that the demand for these services is going to be slightly less pronounced in areas like Teesdale (population 25,000) than in Kirklees (population 400,000). When you have councils which vary dramatically in size, resources and demographics, it’s slightly absurd to expect them to all provide the same level of support for victims, irrespective of whether that effectively meets demand.

All of which might suggest that the buck should stop with central government. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that through smart planning, a government which was committed to increasing the number of crisis centres could target them effectively to where they’re most needed. Whilst this might mean that there isn’t a shelter in each local authority, it could at least ensure they’d have less far to travel, and that the centres themselves don’t live under constant threat of financial failure.

Either way, we’re failing to support the victims of domestic violence as well as we could. In 1984, there were 64 rape crisis centres. In 2008, there were just 36, and those that remain are fighting for their survival. If this government – apparently so concerned with helping the victims of crime that they’ve appointed their own chief victim – means what it says, it could redouble its commitment to reducing domestic violence by ensuring that all its victims have a safe place to stay, recover and rebuild their lives.

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