I’m grateful for the increased awareness around Domestic Abuse in recent days, but angry at those who play party politics with what is a serious national issue.
Since launching a Domestic Abuse helpline last year, it’s become one of the most in-demand services provided by Penny Appeal, the charity I founded. It is one of the few things that cut across all the divisions in our society: callers are rich and poor, black and white, of all faiths and none. And they are both male and female.
Many callers have the same fear: that people won’t believe them. That people will think they are lying to serve their own agendas. That this isn’t really about domestic abuse, but about something else. This is why it is important that we have a national conversation around domestic abuse, free from bias or party political motives.
In January, the Home Office estimated that the economic and social cost of domestic abuse was £66 billion per year - that’s nearly double England’s schools budget. The biggest cost is the physical and emotional harm suffered by the survivors themselves (£47billion), followed by lost output at work (£14billion). At the same time, spending on refuges and other important services are being cut, at a time when demand already exceeds supply.
This may be sometimes seen as a private issue, but it is a public crisis. It affects employers, schools, and the NHS. And because of underreporting, the problem is almost definitely bigger than we think it is: on average, a survivor will experience 50 incidents of abuse before getting effective help, and other factors like mental health issues, pregnancy, and cultural bias make someone both more likely to experience abuse, but at the same time less likely to report it.
The size of the problem makes it even more unfortunate that Domestic Abuse is being poured into the mould of Britain’s broader culture wars and political debates, making it harder to protect our society.
Politicians’ personal lives and conducts have always been relevant to their ability to serve, and everyone in public life should expect to be held to account, and publicly. However, these personal behaviours and their political consequences should not eclipse the needs of the nation. What is needed is a change of culture, legislation and enforcement, beyond sensationalist headlines and pithy tweets.
Some things are too important to be made into partisan rallying cries. Some things are too universal to be sacrificed to divisive campaign politics. Domestic Abuse is too damaging to our society to be addressed by anything less than a united front.
Survivors of abuse can be of any background, which may be why some elements of the political and media class have been so uncomfortable in recent days. Sometimes caricatured as a problem belonging to ethnic minorities and the white working class, it is in fact universal.
This is evidenced by how diverse our helpline callers are, even though we are a Muslim-led charity based in Yorkshire.
And many of our callers are men. This should not be as surprising as some may find it: The Office for National Statistics estimates that in the year ending March 2018, 1.3million women and 695,000men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales. So a third of survivors of abuse are men, making this much more than ‘just’ a women’s issue, and rendering prominent men’s minimisation of the problem even more perplexing.
At the same time as strongly opposing violence in the home, we must maintain a clear-headed understanding that domestic disagreements, without violence or intimidation, are normal – even healthy – in relationships.
Robust, respectful conversations in a relationship come with the territory; violence, abuse and control don’t.
And we need more than just new laws: coercive control legislation that was passed in England and Wales in 2015, as well as Clare’s Law in 2018, were world-leading, but have done little to reduce abuse.
We need a sophisticated, serious understanding of what goes on behind closed doors across the country. And we will never develop that if we are too busy chasing headlines and scoring political points. To continue acting in the same way would be nothing less than abusive.
Adeem Younis is founder and chairman of Penny Appeal, which runs domestic-abuse.org