Violence against women: Changing the prescription

Senior Policy Associate, Rebecca Roberts, says we need to look beyond the 'short-sightedness' of criminal justice interventions in tackling violence against women.

By: 
Rebecca Roberts
Date: 
Wednesday, 17 September, 2014

Jane Martinson, writing about her time as Women’s Editor at The Guardian, describes the impact the role had on her world view.

This job has been life-changing. No longer can I enter a room, watch TV or simply take part in a conversation without thinking, "What about the women?"… The way women are pictured, filmed, asked for an opinion: once you look at the statistics, you wonder how you never saw it so clearly before. The term "gender lens" is a bit patronising but it does feel like seeing something clearly, the big difference with contacts is that you can't take it out again. 

Putting on the gender spectacles

For a number of years, at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, we have documented and disseminated evidence on the failures of criminal justice, reaching the conclusion that it is too costly, too intrusive and harmful. We want to see a radical reduction in the size and scope of criminal justice – fewer arrests, fewer prosecutions, fewer prisoners and fewer probationers. However, a common (and understandable) response to such a demand is often ‘what about violence against women?’, or ‘rapists’? or 'child abusers?'

At the core of our Justice Matters for Women initiative is the proposition that criminal justice fails women – those who have broken the law and those who are victims of law breaking.  As outlined in previous comment pieces in this series, a number of writers have emphasised the limited effectiveness and appropriateness of relying on criminal justice as a means for eliminating and/or protecting women from gender based violence.

It seems that in recent months, there has been growing media and political concern about the failures of the police and courts to adequately deal with complaints of violence made by women – and in particular interpersonal violence, sexual violence and FGM. The harrowing accounts of institutional failings in Rotherham through to the coverage and debate arising from the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, are just two examples where spaces have opened up for critical analysis that situates violence in the context of gender and power inequality. However, the voices of criminal justice experts largely dominate the debate about gender based violence. This results in a slightly skewed view of the world where criminal justice responses are seen as central to the fight against violence.

However, let us just remind ourselves of what criminal justice is – it is an emergency service of last resort. By placing criminal justice at the centre of tackling violence against women, we do a disservice to women, and narrow the opportunities for genuinely dealing with the problem. The criminal justice system is not about prevention or long term solutions. Taking the issue of gender based violence seriously should involve better social responses - from the police and other agencies. The protection of potential victims from immediate danger should be of paramount concern but this needs to be acknowledged as a response rather than prevention. 

Changing the prescription

Through the Justice Matters for Women initiative we are applying a gendered lens to criminal justice, punishment and violence, and issued a call to action in June 2014. The important thing about getting better sight of social problems, and at risk of taking this lens analogy too far, is you have make sure you have the right prescription: criminal justice responses tend to be the short sighted intervention – we need to refocus and keep sight of questions of social change, inequality and gender relations. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified violence as a ‘public health issue’. This 2007 briefing for the WHO from Harvey, Garcia Moreno and Burtchart outline the factors involved in intimate partner violence and sexual violence and range of interventions required. They reproduce the 'ecological model' for understanding violence and outline what is known from research about interventions at these different levels.

Harvey et al list a number of risk factors associated with violence, many of which cut across the different levels on the ecological model:  
gender inequality;

  • social norms supportive of traditional gender roles, intimate partner violence and sexual violence, and macho male gender roles;
  • poverty, economic stress and unemployment;
  • lack of institutional support from police and judicial systems;
  • weak community sanctions;
  • dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships characterized by inequality, power imbalance and conflict;
  • alcohol and substance misuse; and witnessing or being a victim of violence as a child.
    Source: (Harvey et al., 2007)

This list is worth noting in that it sets criminal justice amongst many other individual, relationship, community and societal drivers, solutions and interventions that need to be understood to more adquately impact on levels of violence against women.  We need to release ourselves from the stranglehold that criminal justice has on our understanding of VAW and law breaking – and refocus attention.

A case for radical social change?

In an article in the Global Crime journal, Ivan Perry (2009) usefully summarises some of the conceptual and theoretical tools for approaching violence as a public health issue. Perry describes the work of Harvard Professor, Andrew Gilligan:

Central to his thesis is the notion that violence is most likely when shame, humiliation and violation of self-esteem are maximised and guilt, which is expiated by punishment or other forms of penance, is minimised. Shame and humiliation are widespread in societies and settings where there is rigid gender role stereotyping, with distorted views of what is to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, and entrenched social hierarchies, based on inequalities of opportunity, income and hope….. He advocates radical social and economic change to attack the root causes of violence.

As the Justice Matters for Women initiative develops, we are keen to identify responses, interventions and policies that go beyond criminal justice. We will be publishing further online comment pieces highlighting work in this area, and we very much welcome contributions from organisations and individuals with expertise on violence, and in particular violence against women.


If you haven't signed our call to action, then please do so here and for other online content relating to the Justice Matters for Women initiative, click here