An article by Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, was published in the Telegraph on 11 June where she insists ‘we need to properly understand that the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse are women’.
Neate was responding to Professor Sylvia Walby’s recent intervention at a UK Statistics Agency (UKSA) seminar on improving crime statistics. The seminar brought academics, police, policymakers and journalists together with statisticians to discuss how improvements could be made to understanding the scale of crime. Walby’s intervention was based on a piece of research she carried out with her colleague Jonathan Allen entitled ‘Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: see findings from the British Crime Survey which demonstrated that that the way domestic abuse is measured is fundamentally flawed.
At the seminar Walby insisted the way statistics about violence are collected and recorded should be reviewed. Neate asks the question: ‘Why does Walby’s intervention matter so much?’
Systemic Violence Against Women
Walby is a professor of sociology and Unesco chair of gender research at Lancaster University, who, with her colleague, carried out a painstaking analysis of the statistics of the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW). They discovered that the incidence of violent crime against women, and domestic violence in particular, is grossly underestimated.
The 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, Walby says violence against women by intimate partners rises by 70 per cent and violence against women by acquaintances by 100 per cent. As such, and put simply, the systematic, repeated victimisation of women is being ignored.
Neate argues that we know that domestic abuse has, at its heart, a repeated coercion and control, so to deny the importance of repeated instances is simply misleading. By capping the number of recorded incidents suffered by an individual at five, the ONS effectively makes it impossible to get a true picture of who the victims and perpetrators truly are. After a considerable period of pressure from Women’s Aid as well as other organisations and charities, Walby’s intervention must now be the decisive factor that pushes the The Office of National Statistics (ONS) to act.
The unquestioning repetition of the ‘one in four women, one in six men’ statistic has serious side-effects. It prefaces many of the gender specifications drawn up by local authorities which 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’. This statistic has stuck in the minds of journalists and academics, making it increasingly difficult without being challenged to describe the fact that domestic abuse is a crime overwhelmingly affecting women.
Neate argues one of the most unthinking mantras around domestic abuse is: ‘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. But, as the true statistics unequivocally show, discriminate is exactly what perpetrators of domestic violence do. This is not to argue that men are never the victims of domestic violence but they tend to experience less severe violence and are less likely to be seriously injured or killed by a current or former partner. Domestic abuse is not a random event that can strike anyone, for no reason. It is about gender, and so should our response to it be. In Neate’s view this means everyone responsible for services – from national policy to local commissioning and delivery – should be turning their backs on gender neutrality.