EVERY six to 20 seconds an incident of domestic violence - overwhelmingly against women -- occurs in Britain, according to a unique survey of crime figures compiled by British police forces during a single day: 28 September 2000.
On that day police received more than 1,300 calls reporting domestic violence. In more than half the cases reported, children watched their mothers being kicked, raped, slashed with razors, punched or left unconscious. Not even pregnant women were safe.
Only a tiny percentage of abusers were arrested. Sandra Horley, of the charity Refuge, whose 24-hour national helpline was overwhelmed by 200 calls that 'ordinary' day, called violence against women 'an epidemic of staggering proportions'.
John Godsave, of the London Metropolitan Police Racial and Violent Crime Task Force, acknowledged the scale of the problem was 'mind-blowing'.
A horrified government vowed action, including better, gender-sensitive policing, more protection for women at risk and harsher punishments for violent men.
Despite the outcry, the grim statistics remain unchanged. Two British women still die every week at the hands of their partner or ex-partner, according to the Home Office.
While no price tag can be put on the human cost of domestic violence, London is beginning to calculate its drain on public services. Every year 100,000 women in the capital seek medical help, and 17 per cent of homelessness applications are a result of domestic violence, according to Mayor Ken Livingstone. He estimates that 'the costs of dealing with this issue are at least [pounds sterling]278 million per annum'.
Although recent crime figures show a fall in domestic violence over previous years, Prof. Elizabeth Stanko, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Violence Research Programme, believes the true incidence of domestic violence is unknown due to massive under-reporting of cases to the police. On average, a woman will be assaulted by her partner or ex-partner 35 times before she goes to the police.
One worrying reason is that many women have little faith in the legal, social and criminal justice system. Until recently police took a dismissive attitude toward what they call 'domestics'. Delays in sentencing often mean violent men are released back into the community on bail.
Even well-meaning measures such as the Children Act of 1989, which ensures that minors are in touch with both their parents, have unwittingly put women at risk, forcing them into unwanted, unsupervised contact with violent fathers.
The Home Office, which is leading the government initiative against domestic violence, hopes its planned network of specialist domestic violence courts will not compromise women's safety. The Home Office hopes that the network will encourage women to use the system. Its pilot Domestic Violence Cluster Court in Leeds aims to co-ordinate professionals involved in protecting women. The court will speed up trials and increase sentences for violent men.
The task will be daunting. Professor Stanko, who analysed the one-day results of both police forces and women's support organisations, found a severely over-burdened support network. Approximately 7,000 women and children seek safety in …