International Women’s Day 2019

Dr Emma Williamson discusses the current political and societal landscape regarding gender equality and how the Centre for Gender Violence Research continues to fight for justice for the victims of domestic violence.

The last year has been a mixed one for women’s rights.  The consequence of the Trump election has seen many of the hard-fought rights for women being reversed in the US, from challenges to women’s reproductive rights – access to contraception and abortion – to changes to the definitions of domestic and sexual violence.  These latter changes make it difficult for victims of psychological abuse and manipulative coercive control to get justice and support.

Globally, political and social shifts to the right through nationalist political parties also mean that women’s rights have been challenged from Hungary, where women’s studies centres have been closed, to the decriminalisation of domestic violence in Russia.

Alongside these challenges we have also seen the development of the #MeToo movement which has changed the social landscape of how we talk about abuse, and how we respond.  This movement is not a magic bullet however, we need to both prevent abuse happening as well as responding appropriately when people disclose it.  We still have a long way to go on both fronts.

Closer to home, many of the research projects from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research have come to fruition.  The Justice project ended officially in May last year and we continue to disseminate the findings through our partnerships.  Several academic papers are in press looking at faith-based responses to abuse, police responses, issues with protection orders, child sexual abuse, sex with third parties, as well as methods papers and one looking at the secondary trauma impact of this type of work on researchers.  We have a London based event in May to further disseminate this work, and we are working with Research in Practice to offer training to social care practitioners across England and Wales over coming months.  This training is based on the findings from the Justice and DRIVE projects.

This year saw the publication of the second annual report from DRIVE.  This project has been evaluating an innovative approach to disrupting the behaviour of high-risk domestic abuse perpetrators using multi-agency intervention.  The findings so far are positive and show that using this approach (enshrined in the Istanbul Convention) has had positive outcomes for the safety of victims/survivors, ensuring a robust response from the criminal justice system.

In December we held the final event for our Global Challenges Research fund project looking at gender and displacement in the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan.  We welcomed colleagues from Kurdistan, but the visa process was itself enlightening.  Twelve colleagues intended to travel to Bristol but five had their travel visas denied and as a result six decided not to apply (the process is extremely costly).  Most disturbing was the fact that unmarried women were deemed not to have strong enough social ties in their home country to mitigate their flight risk.  This was ironic given that our project was looking at the ways in which gender impacts on experiences of displacement!

Most recently Professor Marianne Hester with Professor Evan Stark (a previous Benjamin Meaker Fellow at the Centre) provided expert testimony to the successful Sally Challen appeal case.  This landmark appeal brings coercive control into focus as a potential mitigating factor in cases of murder/manslaughter where diminished responsibility is at stake.  That case will go to re-trial and we anticipate our work in this area featuring in that new trial.

Finally, the only non-Brexit item in the government legislative package this year has been the new Domestic Violence Bill.  We engaged with a wide range of activities relating to that consultation, including presenting to four Westminster events, and meeting directly with the Home Office to discuss the findings from the Justice Project – the most up to date data on protection orders and Criminal Justice System responses.  With the political uncertainty in Westminster at present we do not know when that Bill will be taken forward but whatever happens, the process of being able to share our findings with service providers and policy makers has been extremely rewarding, both to us and to those who took part in the research.

What all of this work shows us is that victims and survivors are still seeking justice for their experiences of gender based violence.  Having spent much of the last year immersed in survivors’ testimonies, we know how crucial victim’s rights (predominately women) are in protecting them and their families from abuse, but so too is the way that society and communities within society respond.  Victims and survivors want recognition, they want to be heard, and they want the perpetrator to be held to account.  These are simple messages which we can apply to our own individual, institutional, and social interactions when addressing issues of abuse.  They are also clear messages we can take forward, in the year which marks the centenary of some women’s suffrage, challenging both the individual and structural barriers which exist to prevent women from achieving their human rights.

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