Is domestic violence illegal? Most people think so: but then when most people picture domestic violence, they think of a woman being physically beaten, probably with a black eye or bruised lip. If pushed, some would probably agree that verbal insults and threats are domestic violence too. Yet the general image still doesn't capture what's at the heart of domestic violence for the women who experience it. And neither does the law.
That leaves women like Claire vulnerable. When Claire first met her partner, he swept her off her feet: he was charming and really interested in her, and seemed like he provided all the answers to her problems. Very quickly, she had moved to live with him and unexpectedly became pregnant. Knowing she couldn't go back to her old job while pregnant, he isolated her from family and friends and demanded to know where she was every minute when they were apart. He constantly read her emails, texts, and phone records, denying her any privacy, and he tracked her movements through her phone. He would question her about where she'd been, threatening her and turning physically violent if she lied or couldn't remember the specifics. He spread lies to her friends and family online, making them turn away from her. She felt she could never escape his control because it was so total.
For Claire, the physical violence was degrading, humiliating, and terrifying, but it was the relentless, day-to-day, endless psychological abuse that kept her trapped and hopeless. This pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour is what the Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign is trying to make illegal. At the moment a perpetrator can control every aspect of his victims' life and terrify and manipulate her into behaving just as he chooses every minute of every day without ever breaking the law. That has to stop.
The campaign, which we run with national stalking service Paladin, and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, is trying to reconcile an inconsistency at the heart of the way we currently deal with domestic violence. The Home Office defines domestic violence as:
"any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members"
However the police can't act on that, because even if the government defines domestic violence that way, the definition doesn't have any force in law. A perpetrator can only be charged with specific offences, like assault, rape, kidnapping, or harassment. Even worse, because it's not a crime the police and courts often aren't aware of the control and terrorism that a woman has to overcome if she wants to press charges for a specific assault. That means women very often don't get support to overcome that control and begin to live independently. It's a key reason so many women withdraw their testimony, refuse to press charges, or don't report abuse to the police in the first place.
Today we released a survey showing that 97% of frontline domestic violence support workers want psychological abuse and coercive control to be recognised in criminal law. These workers are the experts: they see women experiencing domestic violence every single day and know it better than anyone. Many have survived abuse themselves. And they are overwhelmingly demanding a change.
We're asking the government to criminalise psychological abuse, coercive control and allow the police to take patterns of repeated abusive behaviour into account so that no one has to feel, like Claire, "I felt that I would never, ever be free. He controlled every aspect of my life, and left me terrified and feeling worthless and alone."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can get support and information at www.womensaid.org.uk