Addressing violence against women beyond criminal justice

Helen Mills
Tuesday, 11 February 2014

What would you do if he hit you?

Asked the midwife at an antenatal check up. I won’t go into what I said exactly, but the midwife picked up on what I didn’t say and she told me;

You go to the police. Women are not alone.

Posing this question to all pregnant women seems commendable to me; a necessary acknowledgement that male violence against a partner pre- and post-birth is a common experience and should be neither a taboo or something to keep quiet about. The midwife’s advice to me is understandable. As a friend of mine said, if my partner starts beating the crap out of me I don’t want a social worker, I want to call the people who turn up with a fast car and gun.

So why as part of the Justice Matters for Women project, are we suggesting downsizing the criminal justice system for women?

Relying on criminal justice to address violence against women is problematic for many reasons, not least of all because most incidents do not come to the attention of criminal justice agencies. In 2011/12 the police recorded the following incidents as involving women victims:

  • 25,008 incidences of violence
  • 172 homicides
  • 14,767 rapes
  • 18,780 sexual assaults

These figures clearly capture a significant amount of harm against women. However the vast majority of harms women experienced are omitted from these figures. Many incidents will not have been recognised as violence (including by those experiencing it). Others will not have fitted a formal crime classification. Even when recognised as violence by the person at the receiving end of it, the complex, usually intimate, context means underreporting is chronic.  It is estimated the actual number of women in the UK who experience violence in a year is nearer three million, making violence more prevalent for women ‘than stroke, diabetes and heart disease.’

Our commitment to downsizing criminal justice is about taking very seriously the unacceptable levels of violence against women and asking whether our current approaches are sufficient. We are interested in joining with others to ask:

Are there better ways of responding to this violence and to the harms violence against women causes than the response offered by a criminal justice system?

By ‘better’ I mean responses that prioritise aspects that have long been recognised by campaigners in this field: treatment, survivor support, prevention, and protection against future violence.

Criminal justice is a process that prioritises above any of these things conviction and punishment of the ‘guilty’. Determination of guilt is based on a legal process dependant on establishing individual guilt and a narrow concept of legitimate ‘offenders’ and ‘victims’. Undoubtedly this is ineffective in its own terms at securing convictions as well as often doubly victimising women.

Leaving aside the suitability and potential of criminal justice and the legal process that underpins it as a response to violence against women, it is necessarily a system which addresses what we might do after an incident has occurred. Why start here? If our goal is to end violence against women, it makes sense to focus energy and resources on preventing violence occurring in the first place (for example, this post on a public health approach to sexual violence).

It will, I imagine, be uncontroversial to state that if you started from scratch and wanted to address the problem of violence against women you wouldn’t design something that looks like our criminal justice system as a solution.

What is open to interpretation is what to best do about this: where should criminal justice feature in strategies to address violence against women?

Starting a conversation

There have undoubtedly been important gains in making criminal justice work better for women. And anyone seeking a difference for women can’t afford to ignore criminal justice or pretend it doesn’t exist.  However, it is important to be clear about the limitations of these efforts, and, if we are interested in long term strategies to end violence against women, we should acknowledge criminal justice has a relatively minimal role to play.

I expect such a position is pushing against an open door for those campaigning around violence against women. This movement has long embedded its work in addressing wider structural issues such as patriarchy, inequality and power; advocating initiatives including better sex and relationship education, community mobilisation, and alleviating gender inequality. By implication, criminal justice is marginalised in such strategies. But it is a sector that has typically stopped short of a critical perspective about criminal justice.

We’d like to open up a dialogue with those working to tackle violence against women about this. In the Coalition’s 2010 strategy to address violence against women and girls, on the first page, Theresa May states:

The causes and consequences of violence against women and girls are complex. For too long government has focused on violence against women and girls as a criminal justice issue - dealing with the fallout of these terrible crimes.

The government has made little progress thinking through the consequences of this acknowledgement of the limits of criminal justice (see the End Violence Against Women coalition score sheet and this blog post). Thinking through the practical implications leads to some more difficult questions for those who want to tackle the harms women face. There are tensions here. These challenges will be the subject of a future comment piece in the Justice Matters for Women series.  But there are good reasons why those pursuing strategies to downsize criminal justice and those interested in long term strategies to tackle violence against women could share common ground in looking beyond criminal justice.

We hope others will think this is a conversation worth having.

Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Related items

Punishing women and criminal justice failure (5 February, 2014)
Criminal justice and reducing the harms that women face (27 January, 2014)
Is criminal justice a form of violence against women? (25 November, 2013)