I REMEMBER once talking to a woman who worked for Women's Aid in Greater Easterhouse, Glasgow, who said that when her father was young, 50-odd years ago: "He lived in the old Glasgow tenements with a courtyard in the middle. He said as a child you could hear them, night after night, the men beating the women up. It was completely accepted. It was like a joke, you'd just say, `Oh, there's so and so at it again'." If the women's movement of the last 30 years has done anything, hasn't it challenged that complete acceptance? Hasn't it enforced the realisation that violence against women is not a joke, but a crime?
A report published this week by Crisis explores the experiences of homeless women in London, Bristol, Brighton and Liverpool. Anwen Jones, the author, found the commonest reason for homelessness among women is domestic violence. These women whose partners beat them up ranged in age from 20 to 50, and none of them managed to challenge their partners' behaviour. None of them saw their partners convicted of any crime. Instead, they just saw their own lives destroyed. One of them, a woman called Jan, aged 30, said: "I lived with my boyfriend but he became abusive. When I left him I had nowhere to go." Jan was then attacked while sleeping rough. "The police took me to a recovery suite, but they were not very sympathetic because I had walked out on my boyfriend. I went back to the flat but he wouldn't leave. I walked round and round Bristol until I found a place at a women's hostel." How does Jan see her future? "I reckon by the end of the year I'll be dead," she told Anwen Jones.
This report will join a mountain of reports and statistics produced by universities and pressure groups and government departments, all testifying to a grim truth: we do still accept domestic violence. All the statistics testify to its frequency. Two women each week are murdered by their partners. And the latest figures published by the Home Office put the number of women who have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes at one in four of all women. Very few of these incidents will ever be reported to the police - and even of those that are, according to research carried out in Fulham, only one in ten will result in an arrest, and only one in a hundred will result in a conviction. Occasionally the actions of individual politicians push domestic violence on to the agenda again: last week Jack Straw welcomed the establishment of a new magistrates court in Leeds, that opens today, and will specialise in domestic violence cases. But although this specialist court can be welcomed, since it will speed up hearings and provide a focus for probation and support services, it won't begin to deal with the major stumbling block that arises before that - that most cases don't get to any court, that most cases are never seen as crimes. Why isn't domestic violence consistently seen as a crime in Britain? One of the prime reasons is that, currently, the responsibility is loaded on to the vulnerable victim to make it one. The woman - and it is almost invariably a woman - who has experienced an average of 35 assaults by her partner before going to the police, who may be facing the loss of her house, the traumatising of her children, the destruction of her self- respect, is expected to make herself even more vulnerable. She is expected to pursue her abuser through the criminal justice system and then stand up in court to explain why he should be convicted. She knows what a risky action that will be. She may have heard him threatening her with murder, telling her that he'll be back to take revenge; she knows only too well that he is capable of carrying out his threats. No wonder she rarely feels up to taking on the risk. For a long time feminists in Britain have looked enviously at the United States, where various projects, including a famous one in Duluth, Minnesota, have pioneered a new approach to domestic violence. …