Susan J Williams Partner and Head of Family Department (Cardiff)
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 - could this be a turning point for violence against women?
On 29 April 2021, after years of parliamentary consideration, the Domestic Abuse Bill finally became law, representing a long-awaited change to our legislation. This has come at a time where it is hard to escape hearing on the news or TV, issues of domestic abuse. Only last week, Wales Online published the shocking story of Helen Bannister who was brutally murdered by her partner. This was the latest in a series of news stories about violence against women and which even those in the public eye have not been immune.
Last month Ryan Giggs, former Welsh national football team manager was charged with the assault of two women at his home, one of which is believed to be his partner, and the ITV Wales presenter Ruth Dodsworth has also recently spoken out about her years of trauma and abuse at the hands of her husband of 18 years. She described his behaviour as ‘degrading and dehumanising’. Her husband was jailed for three years for coercive and controlling behaviour and stalking.
Speaking on ‘This Morning’, Ruth Dodsworth described how it took confiding in someone else for her to truly realise the seriousness of the abuse, sharing that she probably wouldn’t be alive today if she had not asked for help. Bravely speaking about her experiences highlights issues which are so often kept behind closed doors. Unfortunately, Ruth’s story is not uncommon and many women across the UK are in relationships characterised by abuse. The number is thought to have escalated since the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have increased the time victims are in the home and reduced victim’s opportunity to seek help.
Many of us are probably still absorbing the heart-breaking news of 33 year old Sarah Everard’s murder earlier this year. Her murder occurred the same week that we celebrated International Women’s Day and served as a stark reminder the simple act of walking home can still be a dangerous and unsafe journey to make. It seems that Sarah’s story resonated with many women across the UK who relate closely with what happened to Sarah, having also walked home alone on numerous occasions.
Unsurprisingly, these events have sparked conversations about the much broader issue of violence against women. Many women took to social media to share stories of their own experiences of harassment, intimidation, and violence in order to highlight how frequently this occurs. A shocking statistic which has been frequently cited is that 97% of women aged between 18-24 years old have experienced sexual harassment, according to the survey by UN Women UK. Woman have shared that from a young age they have been taught that they need to take personal responsibility for their own safety and are acutely aware of the dangers that they face on a daily basis taking precautions such as wearing sensible shoes, not listening to headphones, holding keys in their hands and telling one another to ‘text me when you get home’. This has arguably deflected from the real issue which is much deeper rooted.
The actions of the Metropolitan Police at the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, whose response was highly criticised, has only exacerbated discussions as to how to resolve these issues. The women’s rights group ‘Reclaim These Streets’ stated that they had hoped the vigil would mark the ‘start of a movement which would light a fire for change’. Indeed, Sarah’s murder has led to scrutiny of the police, the law, and society and discussion about the changes that are needed to tackle the issue of violence against women. It is hoped that these discussions will prompt necessary changes to make our society a safer place for all.
The highly anticipated Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has expanded the protection of domestic abuse victims. It now recognises that domestic violence goes well beyond physical violence. It has extended the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour removing the requirement for victims to still be in a relationship with the perpetrator, affording protection to those who continue to experience abuse and control post-separation. There is also now a duty on Local Authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within refuges or other safe forms of accommodation. Whilst the recent Domestic Violence Act 2021 is a step in the right direction, there is still some way to go to ensuring our society is safe for everyone.
It is much more common for violence against women to be committed by someone known to them, as Ruth Dodsworth’s story has shown. It may come as a surprise that three women every fortnight are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales (ONS 2020) and only one in five survivors of domestic abuse ever report their abuse to the police (Womens Aid). Following Sarah Everard’s death, Labour MP Jess Phillips read out in the House of Commons to fellow MPs the names of the 118 women who were killed last year in the UK where a man has been convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator. This was a powerful message and a startling reminder of the scale of the issue.
Nobody deserves to feel unsafe, whether that is when out in public, walking home or in his or her home. There are many types of abuse, which include physical and sexual violence but also emotional abuse, psychological abuse, coercive control, financial and economic abuse, and harassment. If you have experienced any of these, help is available. There are a number of support agencies and charities such as Women’s Aid, Refuge, Rape Crisis, and Victim Support, who have continued to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and can provide assistance, advice and support, around the clock. If you or someone you know is living in an unsafe environment do not live in fear and seek help.
At Ince, we have a dedicated Family team who are able to provide urgent advice to protect your safety or advice on what legal recourse may be available to you. We also have connections to charities that can also provide further support and assistance. If you need help and would like to speak to us, to advise you and help you navigate through this difficult time, and any difficulties arising from any of the above issues, please contact Susan J Williams, Head of the Family Department on 07736969373 or by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.