Joanna Williams

Could the Domestic Abuse Bill backfire against women?

Could the Domestic Abuse Bill backfire against women?
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The Domestic Abuse Bill, championed by Theresa May, could easily have fallen foul of Brexit, Boris Johnson, the suspension of Parliament, a new government or coronavirus. But the Bill has beat the odds: it was passed by the House of Commons this week and is currently making its way to the Lords.

It’s pure coincidence that this Bill should be in the news at the very point the nation is emerging from lockdown and, collectively, beginning to take stock of the damage wreaked, not just by Covid-19, but the confining of people to their homes.

One sadly predictable result of lockdown is that rates of domestic abuse are likely to have risen. Charities report a huge increase in calls to helplines and traffic to their websites. Back in April, the UN described violence against women and girls as a ‘shadow pandemic’. But we need to be wary of alarmism. It is too early to count convictions, and an increase in helpline calls may signal greater awareness that such services exist. Perhaps people who would normally confide in friends have turned instead to helplines and websites.

Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, there is now a heightened awareness of domestic abuse and a renewed determination to root it out. But this comes at a time when, despite far more expansive definitions of abuse, overall rates have been falling for many years. The Office for National Statistics notes that ‘the cumulative effect of small year-on-year reductions has resulted in a significantly lower prevalence of domestic abuse experienced in [...] the year ending March 2019 compared with the year ending March 2005’.

It goes on to explain,

‘The downward trend in prevalence over time is driven by reductions in the prevalence of partner abuse, which has decreased from 6.9 per cent to 4.8 per cent over the same period. Family abuse has also followed a similar trend with a significantly lower prevalence in the year ending March 2019 (2.2 per cent) compared with the year ending March 2005 (3.4 per cent).’

Clearly, any abuse is appalling for victims to endure. But falling overall rates, most likely as a result of women’s greater financial independence, should be welcomed.

Despite this progress some – no doubt very well intentioned – campaigners and politicians seem intent on seeing the home not as a haven but as a battlefield. Their solution, in the form of the Domestic Abuse Bill, is for more legislation to protect victims. Some of the proposed legal changes, such as placing a duty on councils to provide shelter for those abused, should be welcomed, although there needs to be enough funding to turn a sensible idea into a practical reality.

But other aspects of the Bill are less straightforward. The proposed new legislation sets out a new definition of domestic abuse that goes considerably beyond physical harm. It includes economic abuse and coercive or controlling behaviour. This takes us into far more subjective terrain. Relationships have a unique dynamic; what one person might consider controlling, another may not. Even within the same relationship, behaviour that may seem normal at one point may come to be considered coercive several years later.

My fear is that some of the proposals now being discussed may backfire against women. Yesterday, Theresa May warned bosses not to enforce working from home after lockdown, as this could increase domestic abuse. Many victims, she said, regarded work as a ‘safe place,’ and employers ‘need to think about that’.

Although May was careful to use gender-neutral language, it is mainly women who are – and are commonly perceived to be – victims of domestic abuse. I am not convinced it is in women’s best interests to be treated differently to men when it comes to working from home. It is a questionable step for women’s liberation to ask bosses to look at their female employees as potential victims.

The Domestic Abuse Bill has been widely celebrated for putting an end to what has become known as the ‘rough sex’ defence, which defendants have used to argue that women consented to sexual activities that resulted in serious injuries or even death. The new legislation is designed to send a message that some behaviours are unacceptable, even if carried out between consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedroom. But we know this already. That’s why assault and murder are illegal. The Bill signals that not all parties have the same capacity to consent, no matter what they say or how enthusiastic they might appear. The danger here is that women become reduced to the status of children.

Locked-down domestic life can be stressful. To dissipate tensions we need to get life fully back to normal as quickly as possible. We need to reboot the economy before the social problems associated with unemployment and poverty have time to take hold. But we need to be wary of legislation that encourages employers, police and juries to treat men and women differently.