I talk a lot about the struggles we face in our fight to combat violence against women, and I realise that this can be quite dispiriting.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful as we consider the fight to combat violence against women. There have been many victories, especially in recent years, for people campaigning in this space. While the world as a whole remains a difficult place to navigate as a woman, awareness of the problems women face and the steps we can take to redress inequality and injustice appears to be growing.
For all of us who want to see the world become a safer place for women, there can be times when the struggle feels too great, and the obstacles seem too difficult to surmount.
But here are some reasons to keep going in that fight, and to not give up hope.
There is an increasing trend towards education on the violence that women face
The education around the subject of violence against women can be both formal and informal. With social media, information about this subject – and pretty much every subject – is more accessible than ever.
In addition, the UK curriculum on sex and relationships education has recently adapted to current times. In September 2020, teaching about healthy and unhealthy relationships became compulsory in secondary schools, and improved relationships and sex education was rolled out at both a primary and secondary level. While this is admittedly belated, it’s an important step which shows that we have become far more open to educating each other on intimate partner violence AND to talking about it more generally.
Education can only be a step in the right direction, especially when we know how much younger people are affected by domestic violence. 2017 statistics tell us that women aged between 16 and 19 are the most likely age group to experience domestic abuse. Education is then perhaps the best way for the message about unhealthy relationships to spread. Pretty much every young person undergoes formal education and has to spend time in educational settings. We should not underestimate the impact our schools and lessons have on us way into adult life, so if teenagers (and younger children) can start to develop a comprehensive appreciation of relationship red flags, then they may instinctively and subconsciously be able to recognise them in their own experiences. That is the position that we want people to be in, so that they are better prepared for the world of relationships and less likely to end up trapped in a dangerous one.
And while many countries don’t compulsorily offer sex education to young adults, the conversation around these issues is undoubtedly increasing. This can only be a good thing.
Talking and listening to each other is the first step in the fight to combat violence against women. We have to open up and speak about ALL gender inequalities, as only a holistic approach can combat the more specific problems of violence and abuse that women disproportionately face.
I think we should consider the pressure that social media has placed on institutions to be a good thing. Though people may not receive formal education, awareness of violence and the issues surrounding it is ever-increasing, and this awareness can increase the pressure on governments and education systems to formalise good teachings that can make the world a safer place.
We are more aware of coercive control than ever before
Coercive control isn’t simply ‘another type of domestic violence’ – it is a behaviour pattern that generally underlies and defines all other abusive behaviours.
Relationships that are physically violent don’t simply involve multiple incidents of one partner hitting and hurting the other; they typically are relationships in which one partner exerts control over the other and makes them feel dependent and isolated. This means that even when physical violence is perpetrated against the victim, the victim feels unable to leave, or that they are deeply in love with the perpetrator. Many relationships that aren’t physically or sexually violent still involve coercive control.
Why is this understanding important? Well until and unless we understand coercive control (and we do still have a long way to go as a society and globally), then we can never fully understand how intimate partner violence works. It we only think of intimate partner violence as a series of isolated physical incidents, then we won’t be able to appreciate what the factors are that keep some trapped in abusive relationships.
In the UK, not only have we criminalised coercive control in 2015, but as a society we have begun to develop an awareness of the issue through popular culture.
For example, consider the Helen and Rob Titchener storyline on the Archers in 2015. In the storyline, Rob is controlling and emotionally manipulative, and eventually Helen stabs him. The story was credited with fuelling a rise in calls to the national domestic violence helpline of almost a fifth.
More recently, Coronation Street has depicted an unfolding story of coercive control between Yasmeen and Geoff, with Geoff gradually breaking down Yasmeen’s confidence and identity over time.
These storylines are a sign of our increasing awareness of not only coercive control but of how domestic violence operates and takes hold. We should view this as a positive sign.
We also use and understand terms relating to coercive control with more awareness nowadays. ‘Gaslighting’ is often used in reference to how certain politicians hold sway over the public, but simply by us using this word in that context, we can develop a broader and more useful understanding of the issue of gaslighting itself.
We recognise violence against women as wrong more than ever
We have to remember that many types of violence against women were not always considered criminal acts, and we must realise that it was not until the 1970s in the UK that we started to develop networks of refuges and safe houses for women fleeing domestic violence. In fact, only in 2004 did common assault within marriage become an arrest able offence.
Admittedly, the progress we have made has been belated, but I would argue that we have accomplished a lot in a short space of time. To go from 2004 to the criminalisation of coercive control in 2015 is no small feat. In 2020, the defence of ‘rough sex’ in killings of women by sexual partners became inadmissible. These are not inconsiderable achievements, and we have to have hope that they will pave the way for further progress.
I am not always optimistic that progress and development work in a linear fashion. But I do truly believe that our consciousness with regards to violence against women has been well and truly ignited – and that it does bode well for the future. We have to have hope to inspire our fight.