Recent research from Professor Sylvia Walby has shown that the scale of violence against women is downplayed in official statistics. After nearly 40 years in the field, this comes as no surprise to me. Refuge has argued for decades that official statistics about the scale of domestic violence are just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, previous research, eight years ago had suggested the same - but been ignored.
The Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) is seen as the best benchmark of crime that actually occurs, as opposed to what is reported to the police. However, in the survey, if a person has experienced more than five separate incidents of violence, their experiences go uncounted. The trouble is, when it comes to measuring domestic violence, we are not dealing with a few isolated incidents. Some women are raped, sexually assaulted, smothered, strangled, kicked, punched or pushed on a regular basis. I have met women who have been controlled and abused by their partner on a daily basis for years - that could be 365, rather than five incidents per year.
The research shows that if the incident cap is removed then the statistics would report a 70% increase in violent crime against women, with the majority of this being in a domestic context. That is a dramatic and harrowing difference. By capping the reporting of crime at five incidents, the CSEW is particularly downplaying crimes with repeat victimisation - crimes on which we should be shining a spotlight, crimes where we already know who the victim is and crimes where we could, and should, be doing more to protect them.
The numbers matter. Without clear and accurate data, women's experiences of violence are written out of the story on British crime, and policy decisions on how to respond to domestic violence are made based on only half of the picture. How do we develop appropriate and effective responses to a crime we do not fully understand?
Whilst the rate of most violent crime is falling, domestic violence is not. Every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales. Every day Refuge supports around 3,000 women and children, and the demand on our services is relentless. With violence on such a scale being minimised and understated in official statistics, the whole system is unwittingly colluding against abused women, downplaying the scale and severity of their experiences.
We need to get to the bottom of why in 2015 thousands of women and children are still being traumatised and brutalised in their own homes. Why when the police, social services and health professionals are in contact with victims, the crime still continues undeterred. We need to understand why women and children are still being killed and killing themselves to escape domestic violence. This is why Refuge is calling for a public inquiry.
A public inquiry would not just look at individual cases - it would look at the national picture, the gendered nature of domestic violence, connecting the dots between a child and woman killed by her partner in Derbyshire with another woman fleeing for her life in Essex. It would examine not just the response of the police but also other state agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service, health and Social Services and investigate why they are all failing to protect women experiencing domestic violence on a catastrophic scale.
Getting the data right will not end domestic violence but it will ensure the full scale of the problem is understood. The numbers do matter, each one is a person's story, and they need and deserve to be told.
To join Refuge's call for a public inquiry into domestic violence, please sign our petition here.