Friday 12th June 2015
Domestic abuse could not be further from gender neutral. Wake up Britain
An alarming new review has found that official statistics seriously understate the scale of violence against women in England and Wales. Women’s Aid chief Polly Neate explains why we need to start prioritising women over men
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has just been told, in no uncertain terms, that the way it measures domestic abuse is fundamentally flawed.
It’s a searing accusation. And it’s the work of one seriously impressive woman.
After a painstaking review of the data, Professor Sylvia Walby, professor of sociology and Unesco chair of gender research at Lancaster University, found that the incidence of violent crime against women, and domestic violence in particular, is grossly underestimated in official statistics.
At a meeting of the UK Statistics Agency (UKSA) this week, she explained that the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) doesn’t account for a significant proportion of attacks on women (and that nearly half of all violent crime is committed against women).
This is due to a ‘cap’ on the number of crimes recorded, which stops counting after five repeat incidents against one victim. When this cap is removed, she said, violence against women by intimate partners rises by 70 per cent and violence against women by acquaintances by 100 per cent. It particularly affects those women who know, or even live with, the perpetrator.
Simply, the systematic, repeated victimisation of women is being ignored.
Prof Walby has recommended that the way these statistics are collected and recorded should be reviewed. Urgently.
And her intervention must now be the decisive factor that pushes the ONS to act, after a considerable period of pressure from Women’s Aid – where I am head – as well as other organisations and charities.
We mustn’t ignore the systematic violence against women (Getty – photo posed by model)
But why does it matter so much? Why do we need to properly understand that the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse are women?
First of all, because domestic abuse is not a random event that can strike anyone, for no reason.
It is both a consequence and a cause of women’s inequality. It is linked to a culture that undermines, belittles and devalues women.
Unless we accept this, we will undermine services that support women to recover, and we will be nowhere near to any success in preventing domestic abuse.
We must tackle the sexism in our culture that permits and even encourages it.
- Domestic violence is on the political agenda like never before
- Domestic violence: Women must not be considered ‘at risk’. Here’s why
The most commonly-used statistic on domestic abuse is that it affects one in four women and one in six men in their lifetimes. Yet, this takes no account of the relationship between victim and perpetrator (they could be brothers, for example) – or of the gender of the perpetrator.
Men are victims of domestic violence – but it’s often less severe (Alamy – photo posed by model)
Importantly, it does not distinguish between victims of multiple incidents and one-off incidents.
We know that domestic abuse has, at its heart, a repeated pattern of coercion and control, something that has now been criminalised. So to deny the importance of repeated instances is simply misleading.
Yet, by capping the number of recorded incidents suffered by an individual at five, the ONS – as Professor Walby points out – effectively makes it impossible to get a true picture of who the victims and perpetrators truly are.
The unquestioning repetition of the ‘one in four women, one in six men’ statistic has serious side-effects.
It prefaces many of the tender specifications drawn up by local authorities. For example: documents which then call for a “gender-neutral approach”, and in some cases even for the allocation of resources for abuse victims to move towards a ratio where 40 per cent of provision is set aside for men – meaning an even greater loss of support for women than is happening anyway as a result of “austerity”.
Domestic violence overwhelmingly affects women (Getty images)
This statistic has stuck in the minds of journalists and academics, making it increasingly difficult to describe domestic abuse in the media as a crime overwhelmingly affecting women without being challenged.
Yet this is a fact.
It has given rise to what must be one of the most unthinking mantras around domestic abuse: ‘Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate, why should we?’
It’s as though someone ‘choosing’ to commit a crime against you can be compared to the weather ‘choosing’ to spoil your picnic.
As the true statistics uncovered by Professor Walby unequivocally show, discriminate is exactly what perpetrators of domestic violence (overwhelmingly men) do.
This is not to argue that men are not victims of domestic violence. They are – as the work of the specialist service for male victims, Respect, demonstrates – albeit in relatively low numbers. They tend to experience less severe violence and are less likely to be seriously injured or killed by a current or former partner. And they need support that is specific to their needs.
That means everyone responsible for services – from national policy to local commissioning and delivery – should be turning their backs on gender neutrality.
Domestic abuse could not be further from gender neutral. It is about gender, and so should our response to it be.
It is time for ONS to recognise the severe damage that misleading statistics can do, and revise its systems urgently.