The Domestic Abuse Bill is debated in Parliament again today – it must help protect women’s and children’s lives.
Mothers face an impossible struggle. If we report domestic violence or if we don’t, we are blamed for harming our children by having a violent partner, even though we are victims. Our children are taken from us, put in care or even given to the violent father.
The family courts have allowed themselves to be used by violent fathers to continue their abuse and control. The presumed “rights” of fathers to see their children, regardless of a history of violence, are generally prioritised over the safety and wishes of children and the efforts of mothers to protect them from harm.
As part of the Support Not Separation Coalition which defends women and children facing the family court, we know that between 70 and 90% of cases involve domestic violence, yet only 1% of fathers are denied access to children. Over 70% of the cases brought to us involve domestic violence, including rape.
We demand: immediate changes to family courts so women who report violence do not risk having their children taken away or given to the perpetrators. (See our amendments to the Domestic Violence Bill.) Implementation of Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act to keep children safe with their mothers. Judges who refuse to apply the law must be removed – we won’t go back to the 1970s when rape in marriage was considered legal!
Court judgements have repeated flouted the rights of children and mothers to safety and welfare, and court professionals often display shocking disregard for the basic legal protections victims have won. Many of the mothers and children struggling against injustice are women of colour or immigrant, and/or have a disability.
One judge repeatedly insisted a violent father, convicted for attacking the mother, be brought from prison to the family court, breaking an exclusion order from the mother’s and children’s town. No protection was available in or around the court, and the judge called her ‘pedantic’ when she asked about it. We succeeded in getting the judge removed from the case.
Another judge ruled that the rape of a pregnant woman by her partner who woke her in her sleep was not rape even though he acknowledged the rape in a text, because she hadn’t fought him off. The judge allowed contact.
As foster carers and contact centres are now inaccessible during the coronavirus lockdown, mothers’ contact with children who have been taken from their care has been curtailed even further, cutting children off from their mothers.
Remote family court hearings are causing injustice and retraumatising vulnerable women. When they are isolated on a phoneline to the court they are denied meaningful access to a lawyer (if they have one) and can’t talk to any lay supporter.
For many women and children the lockdown and #StayAtHome directive are a like a “prison sentence” with a violent and controlling man. Support workers and the police have reported that the murder of women has doubled  in the UK with at least 16 killings between 23 March and 12 April 2020, including of children. Reports of domestic violence have mushroomed all around the world. China and Spain saw a surge in calls reporting domestic violence, while police in France reported a 30% increase in domestic abuse cases.
Women around the world have been demanding emergency safety measures, including cash and housing. In some European countries, like Spain, Italy and France, women have won new State protections, including: emergency refuge in hotels or the eviction of violent men from the home, helplines and code words to alert pharmacists to call the police.
In the UK, the Home Secretary has said victims can leave their home despite the lockdown. But where are they to go? Offers by hotels to be used as temporary refuges have been met with government inaction. What are they to live on? As with the protective equipment demanded by health and care workers, our survival and protection are not being prioritised. Yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee report demands money for services. But funding charities is not enough – women need our own money.
A decade of austerity wiped out our financial independence and our escape routes out of violence. Women have suffered 86% of the cuts. Benefits and social housing were slashed – a key source of independence for women. Refuges have been cut: 1 in 6 refuges closed over the past 8 years. In one day in 2017, 90 women and 96 children were turned away.
This is echoed in the criminal justice system’s disgraceful response to violence. Before the virus, an average of two women a week were murdered by partners or ex-partners often after reports to police. And despite a 40% increase in reports of rape over 2012-2018, in 2019 convictions fell to 3% – the lowest in a decade.
The anti-rape movement has won important protections over the years: ● WAR’s 15-year campaign got rape in marriage finally recognised as a crime in 1991 ● We exposed and defeated some outrageous discrimination in the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, especially against those who were raped as children, and won thousands of pounds for individual victims ● Official recognition that rape is torture and grounds for asylum: we won the right to stay for many rape survivors seeking asylum.
But the falling conviction rates for rape and domestic violence show that in reality the state has given violent men near total impunity. And without financial independence our vulnerability to violence and injustice remains.
- Immediate safe accommodation for women and children in emergency need.
- Immediate changes to the family courts as outlined above.
- An end to benefit sanctions and other punitive measures, especially to people with mental and physical disabilities. Scrap Universal Credit and the two-child limit and all welfare policies which pay money to the man in the household rather than individually to the woman. All payments must be made without delay. The welfare state must be rebuilt and expanded – we need urgent access to benefits and social housing. We support demands for a raise in child benefit.
- We support the call for a Care Income made by the Global Women’s Strike and the Green New Deal for Europe. The virus crisis has shown how dependent society is on caring work, waged and unwaged, in the family and outside, and how women in particular care for extended families and neighbours. For the health and protection of people and the environment to be prioritised, those already doing caring work must be compensated. Money from the state would guarantee financial independence from men and our ability to protect ourselves and our children. We could refuse unwanted sexual demands, and have the means to leave and to use the law.
- Thorough investigations and prosecutions by the police and Crown Prosecution Service. The Corona Virus Act has given police free reign to arrest, fine and criminalise, and even to fine the parents of young people who leave the house. We demand a change of priorities so that resources go into protecting women and children from violence. We demand accountability from those charged with protecting us – those who don’t implement the law should be sacked.
- An amnesty against deportations #Papers For All. Over 70% of women seeking asylum have fled from rape but sexism, racism and other injustice in the asylum process leaves them destitute. Sign the Open Letter to the Prime Minister of the UK and the Taoiseach of Ireland demanding the release of all immigration detainees, free health care, and an end to destitution.
1 Data collated by Karen Igala Smith of Nia Project. Looking at the same period over the last 10 years, data records an average of 5 deaths. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/15/domestic-abuse-killings-more-than-double-amid-covid-19-lockdown
4 Women’s Aid
5 There were 58,657 complaints in the year to March, but just 1,925 of those resulted in a successful prosecution.’ https://metro.co.uk/2019/12/17/anger-police-just-3-rape-cases-lead-conviction-11918901/