Criminal justice and reducing the harms women face - lifting the lid on Pandora’s box

Rebecca Roberts and Helen Mills ask what downsizing criminal justice could mean for women.

By: 
Rebecca Roberts and Helen Mills
Date: 
Monday, 27 January, 2014

Prime Minister David Cameron was recently questioned by the House of Common’s Liaison Committee on the issue of violence against women. In his responses the PM emphasised the role of law, police and prosecutors in prevention. Unsurprisingly he skirted around questions relating to benefit changes, public spending cuts and women’s refuges. On the role of schools, while he indicated there was more that could be done on cyber bullying and ‘sexting’, Cameron was reluctant to open up the debate about sex and relationship education in preventing domestic violence. He wanted to avoid

‘a mega-debate about every single aspect of it…. The theocratic arguments between left and right, localist and centralist, abortion and all the rest of it.’

As a ‘practical person’, he said,

‘I think we can work with some of the charities on this, rather than open up the whole Pandora’s box.’

Campaigns to tackle violence against women have long recognised the importance of wider issues such as gender relations, power and equality in facilitating sexual, physical, financial and psychological harm against women. Indeed a letter  in today's Times from a number of prominent campaigners argues for compulsory sex education in schools 'as a critical child protection measure.'  However, Cameron’s comments reflect a political and policy debate which has largely focused on crime and punishment as central to dealing with violence against women.

In Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman on earth, was given a box and told never to open it. Curiosity got the better of her and seven demons escaped, spreading seven deadly sins across the world. Pandora managed to capture the final, eighth demon before it escaped – the spirit of hope. Are Cameron’s concerns about acknowledging the role of wider society in tackling violence against women justified? We think not. Indeed, lifting the lid on this Pandora’s box is precisely the starting point for the Centre’s new project Justice Matters for Women, part of the Justice Matters initiative.

Justice Matters for Women                                                                                       

Over the years the Centre has collated and published data and analysis about the criminal justice system. We have demonstrated how the law and its agencies focus narrowly on particular kinds of harm while failing to tackle other harms, particularly those produced by existing social structures and inequalities. Informed by this, in 2013, we launched Justice Matters. Motivated by the belief that an over-reliance on policing and punishment is socially harmful and prevents us from tackling problems in a just manner, we are committed to working with others to find radical alternatives to criminal justice.

Elsewhere we have described how criminal justice is often one part of a continuum of violence against women. Not only does the system fail women who directly experience violence, abuse and harm, it is also a source of violence against women who are criminalised.  At best, criminal justice is about fire-fighting.  At its worst, it is about throwing more fuel on the fire. Through a series of comment pieces on the Centre’s website, we intend to set out the case for how criminal justice is failing women. We hope challenging the centrality of criminal justice as a solution to a wide range of social problems affecting women will make space for new opportunities to identify and advocate for long term strategies to reduce the harms women face.

We do not deny that this will involve challenges and tensions. For example, while criminal justice has its limitations, who else should a woman threatened by an ex-partner and in fear of her life call? What about women caught up in the criminal justice system?  We do need mechanisms for putting a stop to threatening and harmful behaviour but feel we need to look beyond criminal justice for more holisitic and effective responses. With this in mind, our commentary pieces will also explore some of the difficulties and concerns raised by thinking about downsizing whilst working towards reducing the harms women face.  

Old questions, new answers

Thinking beyond criminal justice is arguably a Pandora’s box. We do not want to place women at greater risk. Working alongside Women in Prison we want to collaborate with others to identify practical and effective alternatives, as well as connect with wider debates about equality, empowerment and progress for women.  Through events and online publications we want to generate discussion about violence and criminal justice failure in the context of both criminalised women and tackling violence against women. Importantly, however, this isn’t just about highlighting the limitations of criminal justice. Nor is it intended to be critical of those people working to help women caught up in it. It’s about forming new alliances and sharing knowledge about how we can do things differently beyond criminal justice.

If the question is how do we end violence against women, criminal justice is certainly not the answer.


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

Sign up to our workshop event exploring downsizing criminal justice for women on Wednesday 26th March 2014.

Justice Matters for Women is a joint initiative between the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Women in Prison. During early 2014 we will be regularly adding comment pieces to the Centre’s website.  

Is criminal justice a form of violence against women? (25 November, 2013)
Criminal justice and reducing the harms women face - opening Pandora's box (27 January, 2014)
Punishing women and criminal justice failure (6 February, 2014)
Addressing violence against women beyond criminal justice (11 Feb, 2014)