We're going to change the way we talk about domestic violence, for some reasons that are good and some that are depressing. From March 2013, the official definition of domestic violence will be widened to include teenagers who are being abused in a relationship, and also to include "coercive control".
On that second point, it is worth underlining how abuse might not necessarily be violence, or the violence itself might be accompanied by other abuses that make the whole situation harder to escape. Pat Craven's Freedom programme (a part CBT/part group therapy course for victims) documents some chilling tactics that violent partners use, such as keeping the victim permanently pregnant or in charge of a newborn. When I went to see a course in Newcastle, one woman described how, some time after she had left her husband and found a house for herself and her children, her ex would steal in five minutes before they left for school and take one of the kids' shoes – leaving the family in permanent fear (and also always late for school). Clearly, there is so much more to this than flesh wounds. The change in the law will generate some discussion, presumably, as thinkers in the Richard Littlejohn cast wrap their minds around the idea that psychological abuse has more to it than telling someone she looks fat.
On that first change, it seems bizarre now that anybody would not count a teenager as the victim of domestic abuse, and yet it took a Home Office consultation that ran from 2011 to 2012 to reach this conclusion. I suppose the logic is that, if they still live at their parental home and not with their partner, it's not technically "domestic". I suspect, however, that the real reason is that domestic abuse is codified to make it seem rarer or more distant from the mainstream than it is – in this case, straightforwardly, by not counting properly.
Elsewhere, I'm still struck by how often it is romanticised, especially in murder cases, and even more noticeably in murder-suicides – when Norfolk councillor Keith Johnson shot his wife Andrea dead in December, news reports described police "trying to fathom what had gone so tragically wrong". Often, a report will detail the offence that led to the victim's death: she was having an affair or she wanted to leave. I don't think this is intended to blame the victim (though I've heard that argued), but I do think it's an attempt to place the violence within a narrative of romance, almost to take the sting out of it.You would never see the motive get such prominent billing in an account of one teenager stabbing another – "the murderer believed the victim to have stolen his phone".
Where it is not romanticised, it's often ascribed to ethnicity – the obvious example being the "honour" killing. Once it's a cultural problem, that brings statutory relativism; women from some communities are simply not thought to warrant the interventions that would be made if they were white and British. Then, when the woman is killed, her community is deemed cold and strange: cultural differences, again, are blamed for the escalation from abuse to murder, when in fact it was the perception of difference that left the victim unsupported, not the difference itself. But this is changing, too – Jagonari, a women's educational centre in London's East End, has launched a campaign against domestic violence in Tower Hamlets, where there's a very high incidence of abuse (6,625 domestic incidents recorded last year). It has the precise intention of reaching the communities that are neglected by mainstream agencies in the name of sensitivity, working with the Interfaith Forum and the London Muslim Centre. I would expect this to be copied across the country, when its results start to show. Crime prevention teams are very keen on new approaches to domestic violence, for human reasons and also because it is so expensive.
The solutions and the sanctions might be getting more imaginative, but the problem itself is getting worse – or, where it's not worse, it's certainly no better. Home Office data released last November showed that 10% of 999 calls to the police were about domestic violence, which rose to 21% in Merseyside. In Scotland, a 7% increase in cases (55,698 in 2010 rising to 59,847 in 2011) led police to make domestic violence their Christmas campaign. In Ireland, the number of women and children seeking refuge went up by 15%, to 11,000. Of those, 2,500 were turned away, because funding streams have dried up – in this country, local authorities are struggling with provision, although at the moment the gaps are being plugged by fundraising or charities spending from their legacies.
Many domestic violence groups and campaigners are trenchant about not linking recession to abuse – Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, says: "Domestic violence has been going on for centuries, irrespective of the economic climate. Factors such as poverty and unemployment may exacerbate the violence, but they do not cause it. Domestic violence is an abuse of power. Men abuse women because they get away with it – as a society we tolerate it and therefore indirectly condone it."
But domestic violence in England is also rising again, having been falling pretty steadily since a spike in the early 90s (also a time of recession). It seems pretty clear, considering all the other things that rise with inequality – drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems – that a really bleak economic outlookmakes this problem worse. I think you can say that without exculpating the violent individuals.
It is instructive to look at the British Crime Survey, because things were significantly worse in the 90s: attitudes have changed, the conviction rate has got much better (at 73%, it is astonishing, next to the 6% rate for rape) and numbers are down in the long term. But certain women, for reasons of age or race, have been shamefully under-served by the law and by society. Hopefully, that's about to change. Zoe Williams The Guardian, Tuesday 1 January 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2