Sandra Osborne MP reviews the lessons of past action against violence against women, and calls for a specific criminal offence of Domestic Abuse in Scotland.
In Scotland, and across the globe, women and girls are physically, mentally and sexually abused by their husbands, partners and ex-partners; raped and sexually assaulted; forced into marriage; sold into prostitution and murdered for ‘dishonouring’ their families or communities. Violence against women has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a major health issue and by the UN as perhaps the most pervasive, yet least recognised, human rights violation in the world.
As a feminist, I see this as a social problem rather than a private matter or the result of a random act.
Scotland’s work on addressing domestic abuse and violence against women has been ground breaking. The Scottish Parliament gave priority to addressing it from its inception. Scotland now has a national strategic approach to tackling domestic abuse and a clear understanding of violence against women as both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. The new Violence Against Women and Girls strategy for Scotland – ‘Equally Safe’ – was launched earlier this year.
So the landscape now looks very different from when I worked for Kilmarnock Women’s Aid in the eighties and nineties. Then, it was a constant challenge for statutory agencies to accept and understand the nature of domestic abuse in their community and to get the support and resources that women, children and young people needed to be safe. Perpetrators were unaccountable for their actions and violence against women was largely trivialised and tolerated by the community.
Now, Scotland has a more securely funded network of specialist support services, a police force and criminal justice system that takes the abuse of women and girls seriously and a proactive healthcare system that routinely asks patients about gender based violence.
Promising as this is, how much closer are we to ending what is often described as Scotland’s shame and to a world where women’s and girls’ lives are not destroyed by male violence?
The dedicated funding for Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis and other specialist organisations that has been made available has done a great deal to address the gaps in services that exist in Scotland. However, 92% of Scottish Women’s Aid groups were operating with a reduced or standstill budget in 2012/13 and a third had to make cuts in their services as a result of reduced funding. East Ayrshire Women’s Aid had 107 requests for refuge space in 2012/13 but had to refuse 39 (more than a third). Around 12,000 calls were made to Scottish Rape Crisis Centres in 2012/13. Yet many of these vital services face uncertainty about current or future funding. If we truly want people who experience domestic and sexual abuse to report it, we must ensure that the specialist support services they need have adequate, sustainable, ring-fenced funding to meet the demand.
Women’s experiences of domestic abuse are neither adequately understood nor addressed by adding up individual criminal incidents of abuse and attempting to allocate to them some level of severity.
A lot has been written about former MSP Bill Walker who finally faced 23 convictions for domestic abuse against four women over a period of thirty years. Sheriff Mackie, in her judgement of the case, pointed out that, “there was evidence showing the accused to be controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling towards the three complainers.“ However, she also noted that, “however abhorrent, unacceptable and abusive such behaviour might be it does not amount to a criminal offence.”
Domestic abuse is about control, achieved through a range of behaviours and tactics that keep women in fear wherever they go. Domestic abuse is currently not a criminal offence in its own right. Welsh MP, Elfyn Llwyd, drafted a Ten Minute Rule Bill for the UK Parliament to make it so.
The bill recognised that domestic abuse is rarely a single incident, but is invariably a persistent course of conduct of unacceptable behaviour which results in cumulative harm to the victim, both physical and psychological. It is the course of conduct therefore, that should be seen as a criminal offence.
It’s time that we developed a specific offence of Domestic Abuse in Scotland that matches what women actually experience. We need a more comprehensive law that recognises coercive control in intimate partner relationships.
I remember being very hopeful when the Matrimonial Homes (Scotland) Act 1981 introduced, amongst other things, exclusion orders enabling women to apply to the court to have an abusive partner excluded from the matrimonial home. I hoped that this would extend the range of options available to women experiencing domestic abuse and mean that fewer women and children would have to fill a few black bin bags and run to an uncertain and difficult future that held no guarantees that life would get better.
Twenty years on, we know that most women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse have to leave their family home, and everything associated with it, to successfully escape domestic abuse. The reasons for this are complex; however the biggest barrier is cost – either the cost of taking legal action or the cost of sustaining the family home afterwards.
There have been significant improvements in Scotland in the legal rights and protection available to women (and men) experiencing domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, forced marriage and stalking. How helpful will they really be if women cannot afford to use them because they are not entitled to adequate legal aid, or cannot find a solicitor who will do the work?
So here are three policy areas for Scottish Labour to consider and pursue:
- Ensure that the specialist domestic abuse support services have adequate, sustainable, ring-fenced funding to meet the demand.
- Legislate for a specific criminal offence of Domestic Abuse that recognises coercive control in intimate partner relationships.
- Remove financial barriers to legal representation and access to justice.