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As part of the UN's Orange your Neighbourhood a 16 day campaign to raise awareness of gender-based violence — members of Churchill College reflect on issues of violence against women both internationally and closer to home.
In the second in this series, Churchill undergraduate & Speakers Secretary of the Churchill Women's Society — Maud McCaffrey, reflects on the recent changes in UK domestic violence laws to help protect women against psychological and emotional abuse.
This week, I was glad to see that the Home Secretary Theresa May revealed governmental plans to make emotional abuse a criminal offence for the first time. The change in legislation will make 'coercive control' an offence that could result in criminals facing a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
At first, this legislative step seemed to me to demonstrate a greater acknowledgement by the government that domestic abuse can manifest itself in a multiplicity of ways (here, psychologically as well as physically) and subsequently a greater acceptance that it is widespread.
However, as I sought further information, what became apparent is that the idea that psychological effects were integral to domestic violence was a well-established view by experts already. A report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) draws on its survey's response that 43% of women have experienced some form of psychological violence. Why, then, has a legislation for a policy to exist that accurately reflects established definitions taken so long to materialise? Recently, the government cuts to funding for the refuges that support people affected by domestic violence have been dramatically slashed. Why, then, are positive changes to policy undermined by other instances of governmental action with regard to domestic violence? Steps in the right direction are drastically undermined by these inconsistencies and insufficiencies.
Women's Aid, a national charity that works to end domestic violence against women and children, includes on its website guidelines for identifying abusive relationships. Common factors that were linked to the identification of abusive relationships are laid out in their psychological terms, as well as physical: destructive criticism, threatening, disrespect, breaking trust, isolation, harassment, embarrassment, intimidation and denial being examples among others. Indeed, these factors are recognised to 'have a serious and lasting impact on a woman's or child's sense of well-being and autonomy'. However, a YouGov study of more than 500 women showed that 95% of respondents identified physical abuse as domestic violence, but less than half identified examples of emotional abuse as examples too. The psychological effects though not visible wound women with lasting scars, damage a sense of self, significantly diminish a sense of value and confidence and contribute to the perpetuation of the disenfranchisement of women. These facts have been widely ignored; though the legislative change now instills some hope we must remember that more needs to be done. Governmental policy can only be effective if supplemented by education and awareness that is accessible and widespread.
More disturbingly still is the dramatic number of refuges being closed or handed over to organisations that do not specialise in domestic abuse. In August, The Wolverhampton Haven, which has been a refuge for 41 years, was hit by cuts of £300,000, an example microcosmic of the dwindling financial support of domestic abuse organisations across England more broadly. Stripping these groups, groups that are crucial to its dependents and in the defeat of domestic violence, limits the extent to which this change in policy can be effective; surely it must be supported by practical (often financial) measures, denial of which makes action incredibly difficult.
Teresa May's disclosure of plans to include psychological abuse in charges of domestic abuse does provide some hope; the government recognising the severity and prevalence of domestic abuse demonstrates some extent of acceptance for tackling these issues. However, these changes cannot be seen in isolation: consistency and education are crucial in confronting the problems that are devastatingly common and strikingly unknown.
1. A link to these definitions can be found here: Women's Aid
— Maud McCaffrey
More from this series: