Violence against women: from intervention to prevention?

Rebecca Roberts
Wednesday, 19 November 2014

I want to thank you all for responding to our invitation – and offering to take time out of your busy schedules to contribute to the discussion today. We have an awful lot of experience and knowledge in the room. My hope is that we can have a positive discussion about strategies, policies and interventions that might be successful at curbing and ending violence against women and girls.

Justice Matters
Last year we launched the ‘Justice Matters’ initiative to promote radical alternatives to criminal justice. The Justice Matters initiative is motivated by the belief that the United Kingdom’s over reliance on policing, prosecution and punishment is socially harmful, economically wasteful, and prevents us from tackling the complex problems our society faces in a sustainable, socially just manner. We have committed three years of resources to the project – but want to take forward this work in the longer term. Justice Matters for Women falls under this banner and has been led by my colleague, Helen Mills. We have published a series of comment pieces.

Justice Matters has a threefold focus: downsize, build, and transform.




We will develop ideas to downsize fundamentally criminal justice in the United Kingdom.

We are interested in exploring an across the board reduction in the social footprint occupied by criminal justice.

This means fewer arrests; fewer prosecutions; fewer prisoners; fewer probationers. It also means fewer criminal justice workers, whether police officers, judges and magistrates, prison and probation officers or others.

We will explore options to build policy and practice alternatives to criminal justice.

This is not about enhancing the capacity of criminal justice agencies to address the needs of those convicted of offences.

It is about rethinking the configuration of policy and practice – for instance in housing, education, health, social security and employment – so that many current criminal justice responses are not required at all.

We will develop an evidenced agenda to transform policy and reduce reliance on criminal justice.

This means a sustained change in the way that problems currently managed by criminal justice are dealt with.

The long-term goal is much smaller criminal justice institutions that treat all subject to them with dignity and respect and a comprehensive set of services and interventions that respond to human need and promote well-being.

This work is a culmination of research and work we have been engaged in for over decade. For a number of years we have documented and disseminated evidence on the failures of criminal justice, reaching the conclusion that it is too costly, too intrusive and harmful.

If we are serious about radically downsizing criminal justice, then, it seemed to us, we were faced with some major challenges. Firstly, challenging the ‘common sense’ notion that criminal justice is and should be a primary mechanism for preventing harm, protecting people and delivering justice. Secondly, what do we want instead? While the Centre is committed to confronting the inequities and injustices in criminal justice – the hardest bit is always the ‘what do you do instead?’. The ideals of equality, freedom, justice are very easy to demand but it is much more difficult to identify concrete steps towards these goals.

In terms of Justice Matters, it isn’t about finding prison like substitutes. There is a legitimate space for this, but we want to try and go further than that.  We want to work with others to identify, promote and develop the thinking, practices and policies that ultimately make criminal justice irrelevant and unnecessary.

Justice Matters for Women
We have been in an ongoing dialogue with Women in Prison about mutual areas of interest and in particular what a radical downsizing of criminal justice would mean for women in particular.  We embarked on this work with Women in Prison in 2013 and back in March of this year we had a well attended and energising event attended by women affected by criminalisation and/or violence and by individuals and organisations working to support and liberate women from their experiences.

The strong feeling in the room was that we needed to build a collective confidence and voice to challenge the narrow focus on criminal justice reform. In particular, there was a desire to make connections between immediate demands of people’s day jobs that involves ‘firefighting’ and mitigating the worst effects violence against women, of austerity, of government reforms. There was also a strong desire to connect up with wider feminist struggles and questions of power and inequality.

With a working group we drew up a call to action to 'empower women, resist injustice and transform lives'. We’ll be taking forward work with Women in Prison on the call to action and in particular how this relates to women in contact with criminal justice.

Violence against women
Downsizing criminal justice could have a huge impact on women currently caught up in the criminal justice system for breaking the law. It is also important to take seriously what downsizing would mean for women subject to, or at risk of, violence.

Criminal justice experts tend to 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. Criminal justice is by and large an emergency service of last resort. Alongside this it is also relied upon as having some kind of symbolic quality. However, 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 – which may among others, may include the police. The protection of potential victims from immediate danger should be of paramount concern. I think many acknowledging this is often a response to violence rather than prevention.

Due to the efforts of many of you here today there is now a greater awareness of the harms experienced by women – and also the significant failures in services to offer adequate protection, safety and justice for women. There have been successes but the battle is not yet won.

In the room today there are likely to be range of views on the role and potential of CJ agencies in eliminating, preventing and responding to violence against women. My guess is that at the very least there is a shared scepticism about criminal justice and hopefully a broad recognition that long term solutions lie elsewhere.

For today I propose that as much as possible we try to park criminal justice as our reference point. I’m not asking us to abandon the idea that criminal justice could and should do more to take VAW seriously – and respond better. The organisations many of us work for are dedicated to reforming the existing structures and systems to make life better for people in the here and now. But hopefully there is some consensus and commitment to exploring ways of addressing women’s safety and wellbeing which don’t necessarily rely on criminal justice.

As an organisation that wants to downsize criminal justice, we’ve become increasingly convinced that the most important part of this is actually focusing not criminal justice at all.  Rather than being against something (i.e. downsize), we want to BUILD alternatives and TRANSFORM society. 

How do we challenge and disrupt the status quo? How do we make criminal justice unnecessary and irrelevant. But most importantly, how do we develop systems, structures, services that reduce levels of human suffering and break cycles of violence?

At the Centre, we’re not best placed to answer these questions on our own. For many of you here today – these issues are central to your work. The Centre has a strong critique of criminal justice and the systems that produce and create violence – but critique alone is not good enough. We’re turning to you now to help us move on from there and identify solutions.

And so, to remind ourselves of the questions posed in the invitation, and for discussion a bit later:

1. What does the evidence tell us about primary prevention policies?
2. What are the challenges and opportunities for policies that go beyond criminal justice and legal interventions?
3. How do we challenge structural inequality and eradicate punishment and control in women’s lives.

We will now be hearing a joint presentation from Dr Maddie Coy of the Child Abuse Women Studies Unit and Annie Ruddlesden of End Violence Against Women, 'Ending violence against women and girls: starting points for prevention'. This will be followed by Dr Sarah Lamble of Birkbeck University introducing her research on 'Transformative Justice and Community Anti-Violence Initiatives'.