Is criminal justice a form of violence against women?

Rebecca Roberts
Monday, 25 November 2013

Today is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The purpose of the day is to combat and raise awareness of violence against women.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) was the first international instrument officially attempting to address violence against women (VAW), defining it as:

'any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.'

The declaration locates VAW as occurring in the family, general community, educational institutions and includes violence ‘perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs’.

These definitions are one of many offered by a variety of national and international organisations. A common thread is the complex nature of VAW. The form of violence, perpetrators and motivations may vary but in essence we are talking about power and control of women in a range of settings.

Criminal justice punishment forms part of a continuum of violence against women – for both so called ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’. Revelations emerged last week about police discouraging rape victims from formally reporting violence to help massage crime figures.  Campaigners have long been critical of the lack of protections offered to women and inadequate support services for women escaping violence. This is just more evidence of how through inaction and inertia women are subject to an escalation of victimisation.

It is well documented that women caught up in the criminal justice system have histories of experiencing of domestic violence, abuse and mental ill health. Some women who experience violence go on to be convicted of law breaking (largely for non-violent offences) and find themselves harmed further at the hands of the State. Punishment and imprisonment can arguably be seen as another form of violence against women. Criminal justice agencies have played a part in the further psychological, physical and sexual harm of women.

There may be merit in opening up a dialogue about criminal justice as a form of violence against women. People working in the criminal justice sector should have common ground with those campaigning to eliminate violence against women.

As part of the Justice Matters project, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is keen to:

  1. Develop ideas to downsize fundamentally the criminal justice systems in the UK.
  2. Explore options to rebuild policy and practice alternatives to criminal justice.
  3. Develop an evidenced agenda to transform policy and reduce reliance on criminal justice.

Violence against women is neither acceptable nor inevitable whether it takes place inside or outside the criminal justice system. In 2014 we will be collaborating with others to facilitate a public dialogue about institutional violence. Our working proposal is to consider the question ‘is criminal justice a form of violence against women?’, and ‘how can organisations working in the field collaborate to mitigate the worst effect of these harms?’. It is hoped that by opening up this debate we can look at why and how we can make a contribution to combatting violence against the women.

Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. 

Related items

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)