THE BLOG

The Real 'Public Health Emergency' in the UK Is Domestic Violence, Not Divorce

17/01/2014 17:28 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Fiona Bruce MP recently stated that the breakdown of marriage was a "public health emergency". She couldn't be further from the truth. The real public health emergency in the UK is domestic violence, from which two women die per week. MPs like Bruce should be supporting women for leaving abusive marriages, not judging them.

However, in their rush to preserve the ideal of 'marriage', Bruce and fellow Conservative MPs Gerald Howarth and Edward Leigh overlook the fact that divorce can save a woman's life. In abuse cases there is a trade-off between the two, and saving the life of the victim and her children is unarguably the priority.

Howarth encouraged MPs to judge people who decide to split up, branding them 'dysfunctional'. MP Edward Leigh condemned family breakdown as a 'modern plague'; yet has he considered what may be causing it? Could domestic abuse be a key culprit? Either way, this judgement of other people's life decisions is shameful, proving these MPs know nothing of the complicated and agonising circumstances that marital separations occur under.

A woman's decision to leave an abuser is already difficult, as perpetrators are reluctant to lose control over the victim and children. For this reason, it is generally the victim who initiates the marital separation. However, sustained abuse leads victims to believe that they are worthless, weak, stupid and utterly unable to survive on their own. On average, a woman will undergo 35 assaults before calling the police. She will make several attempts to leave before leaving permanently and safely.

Victims of domestic violence find themselves trapped in seemingly unavoidable situations of financial helplessness and fear; for some women, the only escape is death. A woman's decision to separate is something to be admired and supported; one study showed that 60% of women leave their abusive relationships because they fear they will be killed.

I speak from personal experience. My mother endured an abusive relationship with my father for 11 years. For years she blamed herself for the abuse. Her feelings that nobody would want to know her, as both a domestic violence victim and then single mother, made her afraid to leave. She chose to stay quiet and stay in the marriage. She didn't want to disappoint her parents. She desperately attempted to keep up appearances amongst what she saw as "perfect families" around her, whilst holding onto the belief that it just 'wouldn't be right' to separate children from their father.

However, as the years went on, the risks to both my mother's and her children's lives increased until they hit a breaking point. After a number of temporary stints at my grandparents' house, we left home for good. After over a decade trapped between fear and social obligation, we were free. In retrospect, my family was much more 'dysfunctional' living under the same roof than we were in separate houses; finally I could sleep at night, concentrate on school and my mother didn't have to tolerate daily threats. Separated from abuse, we were stronger and healthier.

Families do not separate in order to spite the traditional ideal of eternal matrimony, or to deliberately put economic strain on society (as the aforementioned Tories claim). Actually, in direct contradiction to this latter accusation, the charity CAADA (Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse) have published reports showing that improving domestic violence services, instead of ignoring the issue altogether, is more cost-effective for the public purse. Nevertheless, separation is often the last resort in a string of painful, traumatic and even violent events. As long as they stay within abusive relationships, the mental and physical health of women and children will be devastated.

These MPs' comments are merely another indicator of the UK government turning its back on domestic violence victims. They are shutting off women's options by cutting vital funding for domestic violence services and safe houses. This is where the real harm to families and public health lies; due to a dearth of support services, women are now at risk of being separated from their children. The brunt of legal aid cuts are borne by domestic violence victims who are desperately trying to divorce their partner; it is estimated that 50% of domestic violence victims will no longer qualify for legal aid. These reductions in public services are failing the vulnerable and deterring women from leaving relationships that endanger their life.

If politicians are genuinely concerned about public health and the wellbeing of both adults and children alike, they should support individuals' choices, not hold them up against an impossible one-size-fits-all social ideal that puts lives at risk, and then shame individuals for not making it work.

When it comes to domestic violence, it's no exaggeration to call it a matter of life and death. When a woman has had her confidence crushed, her financial resources wholly depleted and is living in fear of her life in her own home, the last thing she needs is judgment and stigmatisation from others. Abuse survivors that divorce their partners need the support of solid public services that will protect, not blame, them. They have not failed; they have succeeded.

These MPs must face the uncomfortable reality that marriage does not guarantee love. If all marriages were truly loving then that would be wonderful for everyone. However, the fact is that abusive relationships exist. When abuse victims muster the astonishing strength to leave their relationship, the idea of state judgment coupled with deteriorating women's services may well prevent them from making that terrifying first step to freedom. It is the role of the government to support and protect vulnerable people, not judge them.

So, what's more important? Marriage or human safety? Lives are worth saving more than marriages.