The creation of the new offence of coercive or controlling domestic abuse in 2015, combined with provisions in the current government’s domestic abuse bill including the creation of a specialist commissioner, ought to mean that the situation for survivors across the UK is improving. The new tools are important ones for police, prosecutors and campaigners. A broader definition of abuse taking in psychological and economic factors was overdue. The bill, published in January, will outlaw the cross-examination of victims by abusers in the family courts and introduce new protection orders.
International Women’s Day ought to be an opportunity to celebrate such successes, while continuing to advocate for change (2 million adults in England and Wales experienced abuse in the year to March 2018, with women more than twice as likely to be victims as men). Theresa May has been widely observed to care about these issues, even amid the maelstrom of Brexit. Last week’s quashing of Sally Challen’s conviction for murdering her husband reinforced the idea that it is becoming easier for women to access justice; that domestic abuse is becoming better understood. Mrs Challen maintained she had killed her husband after suffering years of being controlled and humiliated by him. Judges ordered a retrial after new evidence was presented that she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing.
But while the court of appeal’s ruling was welcome, as the domestic abuse bill was, advocates of women’s rights in the UK are frustrated and alarmed. That sense is echoed internationally. This week the World Bank reported that only six countries in the world enshrine equal rights in employment law. Reproductive rights are under attack in countries including the US, Poland and Brazil. The reasons for this are complex and discrimination cannot be neatly mapped across the public and private spheres. But the rise of populist, authoritarian politics spearheaded by anti-feminist leaders is relevant, as are economic pressures that disproportionately affect women because they are overrepresented among the poor and unpaid.
In the UK, independent research has found that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women, while no fines were levied on companies that failed to comply with gender pay gap reporting rules introduced last year. At the same time rape prosecutions have plummeted, and the incidence of domestic abuse has barely altered in a decade according to Crime Survey data. Other figures suggest sharp increases, for example in London. Three-quarters of all women murdered by men in 2017 were killed by partners or other men they knew.
The aim is not to score political points. On the contrary, the willingness of MPs from different parties to work together on this issue has been a source of optimism. But while funding for the women’s sector is so tight, with 60% of all referrals to refuges turned away in 2018 – and since access to justice is restricted by legal aid cuts and their knock-on effect on the supply of solicitors – it is impossible to claim that the UK is making progress. Police need more training if they are to tackle coercive abuse effectively. Before it has even been passed, the new bill risks being undermined by local cuts, which there is no mechanism to challenge. Nor will it adequately protect migrant women who are vulnerable as a result of “hostile environment” measures. International Women’s Day must be a time for deeds not words.