It might seem to happen behind closed doors, but the systems that uphold violence against women often operate very publicly.
The word systemic is often used to describe many of the contemporary social issues we face. In referring to violence against women as systemic, I simply mean that it is embedded throughout society and is part and parcel of the systems and processes we encounter in daily life.
Some people I’ve met are definitely skeptical about this. Violence against women is often seen as something that happens either in the domestic sphere or in dark alleyways at night – but it is rarely viewed as the all-pervasive problem that it is. It is seen as confined to individual instances of violence. We rarely consider that there are whole systems that allow this violence to go unchecked – or even uphold it.
Still not convinced? Here are four reasons why violence against women is most certainly systemic.
What happens in our courts
When women report violence, physical or sexual, the process of going through the courts system can be truly harrowing. Just 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator, so it is no wonder that so few cases of rape are actually reported. A 2016 French survey found that 40% of people believed that rape victims who were ‘flirty’ were partially to blame for being assaulted. This is a hostile environment for women who wish to come forward about the violence they have experienced.
Particularly shocking was a 2018 trial in Ireland, where the defendant’s lawyer argued that the alleged victim’s underwear meant that she was unlikely to have been raped:
“Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone?
“You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”
Or consider the case of Mustafa Bashir, who beat his then-wife Fakhara Karim with a cricket bat. He was initially acquitted by a senior QC, who deemed the victim to not have been ‘vulnerable’.
When we see responses like this to violence against women in our courts, is it any wonder that other victims do not feel able to come forward? And is it any wonder that we as a whole society trivialise the issue of violence against women, simultaneously allowing its perpetuation?
Women are not listened to by official services
Many women experiencing abuse make contact with the police or probation services. Sometimes, they do not receive the help they need.
For example, when Banaz Mahmod, an eventual victim of a honour-based killing, reported her abuse to the police, nothing was done. She actually reported threats to her life on five separate occasions, naming the men who ultimately killed her.
More recently, there was the case of Janet Scott, who was murdered by her former partner Simon Mellors. She was killed in 2018, but nearly 20 years prior to that in 1999, Mellors had killed another former partner, Pearl Black. Owing to good behaviour, Mellors was released on licence after just 12 years in prison. Janet Scott only found out about Mellors’ previous conviction when he told her some weeks into their relationship. She had already formed an attachment to him by then.
He became controlling, and eventually Janet managed to break off the relationship. Mellors refused to leave her alone however, and so Janet reported him to a probation officer. In theory, it should have been possible to recall Mellors to prison at any time, owing the fact that he was on licence. Nothing happened. Janet repeatedly contacted probation services and even had a probation officer’s number saved in her phone at the time of her death.
Our probation service undeniably struggles with under-resourcing, but there were some serious failures here – one being that nobody saw what was happening to Janet as serious enough to prioritise.
Again, when systems fail victims, it just makes it harder for them to know where to turn.
The risk of those with a proven track record of violence against women isn’t properly assessed
This sort of links in with the previous point, but it is definitely the case that part of the problem is also how we view perpetrators of violence against women.
It seems a bit bizarre to me that Simon Mellors, someone who had already murdered a previous partner, was able to hassle and threaten a new partner without some serious interventions being made. Fair enough we should give everyone a second chance, but it was clear that Mellors was lapsing into old habits of controlling behaviour – the sort of behaviour that killed Pearl Black in 1999.
There’s also the case of Zahid Younis, who in 2020 was convicted of two counts of murder. The bodies of two women – Henriett Szucs (Heni) and Mihrican Mustafa (known as Jan) – were found in his freezer when police went to make a routine check on Younis for his welfare. He was well known to police officers and was classified as a ‘medium risk’ sex offender. He had previously been charged with counts of sexual activity with a child, false imprisonment and assault and had displayed abusive behaviour towards several victims in the years before he met Heni and Jan. Yet though both women were known to be connected to him, and though both women were known to be vulnerable by police, when they disappeared he was never properly investigated.
So this is that same systemic failing – just as we don’t take the plight of victims seriously enough, we also fail to see how dangerous perpetrators can be – even when they have proven histories of abusive behaviour. It’s really a double-edged sword for the victims out there.
Funding for women’s refuges has been hugely scaled back
Between 2010 and 2018, council funding for women’s refuges was cut by nearly £7 million across England, Scotland and Wales. A request for information from The Guardian found that 65% of 178 local authorities had cut funding to refuges.
Now, after the COVID-19 pandemic, services are seeing increased demand from women whose experiences of abuse have worsened over lockdown.
Improving definitions of domestic abuse is one thing, and robust domestic abuse bills are to be welcomed, but these documents cannot make a difference without proper resources to help frontline victims.
We categorically need to change the way our systems perceive and assess domestic abuse, but we also need to be committed to affecting real change for the victims here and now.