International Women’s Day 2016: what goes on behind closed doors

The 8th of March marked International Women’s Day, a day intended to celebrate and spark discussion of the social, economic, and cultural achievements of women worldwide. This makes discussion of domestic violence ever more relevant, a discourse that has recently become more prominent. On International Women’s Day this year, the government published a new report which seeks to address domestic violence against women and girls, pledged to provide more funding and increased support for those who have had their lives affected by abuse in some way or another. The Gryphon explores why the issue is being talked about more, as well as highlighting the need for victims’ experiences to be brought into the collective consciousness in order to be addressed and deemed unacceptable.

Domestic violence could be seen as a more prevalent issue because of an upward trend in violence. Hidden crimes have become somewhat more visible to the public eye with increased reporting. Each year around 1.4 million women and 700,000 men suffer some form of abuse, as stated by the organisation ‘Safelives’. In terms of addressing the gendered experience of domestic violence, figures from a new analysis of the Crime Survey Data suggest that the level of violent crime has increased against women but is falling for men. This appears to be a staggering setback in the progress of women’s liberation movements throughout the last decades, throwing into question how much freedom women have in our modern age and whether they are truly seen as equal. Vivienne Hayes, Chief Executive of Women’s Resource Centre, highlights this disturbing relationship between domestic violence and the subordination of women: ‘Our societal view of women, from violent pornography, violent computer games, street harassment and everyday sexism, to the lack of women in positions of leadership […] is creating a view of women which nurtures and normalises our violation’.

However, recorded cases rose by 31% between 2013 and 2015 according to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. It could be speculated that this occurred as a result of a change in policing. Have procedures become more efficient and effective? According to Zoe Billingham’s report for HM Inspectorate of Constabulary the police have been utilising a better recording system and prioritising domestic violence, actively encouraging victims to come forward, which contrasts to previous practices throughout a historic period in which gender roles were far more entrenched and domestic violence was often trivialised.

Perhaps more domestic violence cases have been reported because of greater media coverage, giving courage to people trapped in abusive relationships by educating audiences on the experiences of others and highlighting that domestic violence is not necessarily out of the ordinary. One such example that increased public attention onto domestic violence is the BBC Documentary ‘Love You to Death’. The programme specifically honed in on the year 2013 and commemorated victims of domestic violence by naming every single woman that was killed by their partner during that year and telling some of their harrowing stories. Abandoning statistics and reaffirming the dignity, identity, and personalities of these women, the documentary heard from all 83 families that had lost someone. The helplessness of the families was all too evident, bringing to the forefront the complexity of abusive relationships and the allegiance or even forgiveness that a victim may feel towards the perpetrator; love often remains in these relationships. ‘Love You to Death’ did not only raise awareness about the brutality of violence behind closed doors in which many women were subject to a prolonged death in front of their children; some families told director, Vanessa Engle, that if only one woman reaches out for help as a result of the programme, their involvement would be made worthwhile.

A similar programme that again raised awareness about domestic violence was ‘Behind Closed Doors’, which aired in March 2016. It provides an intimate look at stories of domestic violence, from the perspective of Thames Valley Police as they intervene and assist with relationships and families in turmoil. The programme was difficult to watch; women were covered in horrific injuries as the police arrive at the scene make domestic violence to the passive viewer much more tangible. ‘Behind Closed Doors’ gave an impression of the controlling nature of violent relationships, which involve such things as abusive texts and mind games.

Even if there is more reporting of domestic violence cases, the ramifications for the victim in reporting the perpetrator cannot be underestimated. It is rare for women to come forward in the frank manner portrayed in ‘Behind Closed Doors’, honestly telling their story to millions of viewers. Nevertheless, the airing of the documentary hopefully will set a new paradigm and encourage more women to come forward and make clear what behaviour constitutes domestic violence. Upward trends in domestic violence, especially against women, are obviously distressing and something to worry about, but a raised profile could be seen as an opportunity to generate awareness. If more victims are coming forward and presenting their traumatic stories of abuse, increased reporting of domestic violence, and more coverage in the media could be seen in a positive light. More publicity has the potential to equate to better support systems, government strategy, and a deeper consideration of societal attitudes towards women in particular.

Perhaps public consciousness of domestic violence is on the rise because of a recent shift in government strategy, with a report called ‘Ending Violence Against Women and Girls’ released to coincide with International Women’s Day this year. This is a new approach considering that the previous coalition government introduced cuts to specialist domestic violence services, as The Guardian reported in 2013. Described by the government as a response to more victims coming forward, they have pledged £80 million of funding to help ‘Vital services and frontline work such as refuges and rape crisis centres’. The strategy involves helping young people understand what a healthy relationship is, providing more accessible services to those who have experienced domestic violence, and a focus on rehabilitating offenders to prevent the risk of re-offending through the changing of attitudes and mental health interventions. Not exclusively for the United Kingdom, the strategy addresses problems of domestic violence overseas and states Britain’s responsibility to implement UN global goals. These tackle issues such as female genital mutilation, trafficking, and modern slavery.

In addition to providing material support for those who experience domestic violence, to celebrate women and thus empower rather than supress them seems an appropriate way of society condemning all kinds of abuse towards women. An event organised by the University’s Intercultural Ambassador Programme at the Leeds Bangladeshi Centre also coincided with International Women’s Day, aiming to create a safe environment in which women from local migrant and refugee communities could meet, and to provide a platform for which they could explore cultural diversity and share their common experiences. The Ambassador Programme seeks to help both students and local people benefit from the global community of students at the University, increasing meaningful cultural interaction and ultimately having a positive impact on the local community.

The Gryphon spoke to first year student Robert Irnazarow, who was part of the organisational team. He said, ‘by advertising the event as mostly for women and hiring volunteers to take care of their children, the aim was to create a women-friendly environment, so the guests could enjoy a range of activities and performances’. On the day, there was a belly dancing performance from the University’s Belly Dancing Society, a speech from Bahar Kheshrawi from the Afghan Women’s Community, a Zumba session, drama from the Swahili Community Group and other experiences such as live music and henna. In discussing how the event came together, Robert said ‘the process was challenging but exciting. We organised collaborations with the Together Women Project which helped the team get in touch with a number of women’s groups, and the Migrant Access Project to enable local women to contribute to and be involved with the event’.

This event is an indication of how important it is to empower vulnerable groups such as women experiencing domestic violence and ethnic minority communities, if only to create a cause for which people can come together through a common experience of hardship and be given a voice. As Robert highlighted, ‘some women didn’t know what women’s day is, so the event helped them to acknowledge that women’s issues and rights really matter. It is important to remind women that they have every right to success, and that they are needed and esteemed by many’.

Meenakshi Parmar

Image: Tom Read/Erica Gornall (BBC)

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