Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne hosted an event at the House of Lords asking the University of Reading and FiLiA to invite experts to discuss Gender-Based Violence and the UK’s Obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture with view to compiling a shadow report to present to the periodic review of states party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in April next year.
Sally Jackson from FiLiA spoke about how the various forms of male violence against women fit the definition of torture and how as a state we are failing in our international obligations. Her speech is reproduced below.
FiLiA are delighted to be involved in bringing this group together to gather information and evidence to inform the shadow report. Before we take advantage of the knowledge and experience in the room, we thought it might be helpful to examine some of the ways in which the state currently deals with male violence against women and how it’s obligation to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women is failing. We need to recognise the very real effect this has on women and children’s lives. Not just those affected directly, but the impact it has on those looking for support who see how other women are treated.
Starting with the basic need to have somewhere safe to live, when women subjected to domestic abuse reach the point that the only avenue that they can see, is escaping; often only with what they can carry to emergency refuge accommodation, mostly with children in tow, Women’s Aid quote that 60% of those women are refused a place due to lack of bed space. Can you imagine what that feels like for that 60% I’d suggest that fits the very definition of torture. What are their choices?
Sofa surf with someone that their perpetrator probably knows and so risk both theirs and their own safety.
Live on the streets or in a mixed hostel until a place can be found
Return home to the abuser.
Every single day women face these impossible choices. And if that woman has any additional needs, a disability, a mental health issue, a language or cultural need, then her chances of finding suitable accommodation are even less. In the last 5 years we have lost 45% of our specialist Black and Minority Ethnic Women’s services, and let’s face it: there weren’t enough to meet the need 5 years ago. When a woman turns to the state for help in these desperate circumstances, all too often our state says no.
Time and time again we read of women who have informed the Police of their fear that they could be killed, only for that fear to come true. I’m remembering for example the recent murder of Michelle Savage who was killed along with her Mother and her dog having twice reported her fears to the Police. Sadly, the ever expanding list of lives cut short complied by Karen Ingala-Smith as part of the Counting Dead Women project constantly reminds us where we are failing. The responsibility for the women’s deaths lies clearly with the perpetrators but we need to acknowledge that the state is not doing its duty when it has been made aware that these women are at risk.
Women are being trapped in abusive relationships because the changes in the benefits system like the single payment with Universal credit, leaves them financially dependent on the perpetrator and gives him another way to exert his control. Surviving Economic Abuse have shown that it’s much harder for a woman to leave an abusive relationship if she is unable to quickly access £100 in cash.
Family court proceedings have been described as traumatising and harrowing. They are often cited by women as further abusing them. Perpetrators are still able to cross examine women in the family court although this process has been clearly seen as dehumanising and further humiliating of women making it much harder for them to give their best evidence in the criminal courts. With the drastic reduction in access to Legal Aid, women are finding themselves unrepresented and having to face the perpetrator in court. Family courts often fail to see the persistent nature of abuse and may regard the abuse as over because the parents no longer live together. They fail to see the ongoing control and how the system itself is used to further victimise the mother and children. Birchall & Choudhry’s (2018) research on ways that perpetrators of domestic abuse use the family court and child contact process to continue abusing their former partners highlighted, that many women in their sample felt the family court not only failed to stop the abuse, but also allowed their partners to continue it. The family court therefore became the perpetrator of abuse.
Mothers are routinely treated differently to fathers who do not have to demonstrate their parenting skills, yet mothers do. For example, in one case a Father attempted to abduct his child twice and the Judge said - don’t do it again. When the Mother was late taking her child to school once, the Judge said you are not meeting the child’s needs. The higher standards that women as parents are held to displays an institutionally sexist approach and underlines the need for a gender informed response.
One of the privileges of being involved with FiLiA is that often women contact us to share the issues that they face. Last year we were contacted by a woman whose sister had lost custody of her daughter. She had been in a relationship with her ex-partner for around a year although they had never lived together. He is not the child’s father. She broke off the relationship as her daughter was clearly uncomfortable around him, a disclosure from her daughter made her query abuse.
The ex then went on a campaign of discrediting her and making false allegations against her, it is beyond belief that due to the structures of the family court her daughter is now resident with him. If she mentions the abuse she is accused of Gardiner’s very dubious theory of parental alienation syndrome and her daughter has been advised (by a supportive social worker) not to tell anyone if he is hurting her or she will never get to live with her Mum again. Slowly the case is improving, and she now has visitation. But the word she would use to describe the last couple of years is torture, she was keen for me to share her story today.
Last year saw a 23% drop in the number of rape cases charged by the CPS, this comes when the number of rapes reported to the police is increasing exponentially every year, reaching more than 41,000 in 2016/17 . That’s 41,000 reports and less than 4,000 charges, this is on the heels of investigations by the Guardian newspaper which have found that young men are much more likely to be acquitted of rape when tried, and that senior leaders in the CPS have encouraged prosecutors to drop so called ‘weak’ cases.
The CPS state ‘complex cases’ and the issues with social media communications as the reason for the drop. I had the opportunity to chat with one of these ‘complex cases’ earlier this year. A 16-year-old who was raped by the friend of a friend last year. She immediately told her family and was supported by them to report. She underwent the indignity of forensic examination and statement taking. Initially the accused said it never happened. With conclusive forensics he then said it had happened but was consensual. It was due to go to trial last April but with the disclosure issues that surfaced it was adjourned and her phone (a life line for any 17-year-old) was taken for examination. It was due to be heard in September. On the court date the defence said they needed more time for a second forensic opinion and so it has been adjourned again. Her witness is now off to university and unsure if she can come back again for another court date, she feels completely let down by the system and is unsure whether or not to continue.
I’ve already mentioned the reduction in services for black & minority ethnic women, but that is the tip of iceberg of issues that they face. We are aware that the police are sharing immigration information of victims to the home office when crimes are reported and so consequently women with insecure status are unable to even access the support of the system for fear they may be deported. Leaving them to decide between staying in an abusive situation or risking immigration control. One of the greatest shames the UK has is the heartless way in which women without recourse to public funds are denied help by a system organised to exclude them. Working in the field, one of the greatest challenges is to find adequate support for this group of women.
I couldn’t talk about torture without mentioning the horrific abuse that too many young girls and women have faced through gangs and sexual exploitation. At FiLiA we have had the honour of working with Out of the Shadows and increasing our knowledge around this issue. Again and again we have heard of girls across the UK telling their teachers, social workers or police about the violence and rapes they have been subjected to, only to not be believed and sent back out to the abusers. Whether in Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale or any city across the UK consistently issues which should be seen as vulnerabilities that require additional support and care are seen as wayward teenagers acting out.
In 2018 I am still hearing of promiscuous, streetwise teens who are making dangerous lifestyle choices rather than what is clearly the systematic abuse of young women. If you are 14 and pregnant you should be protected not chastised.
The various forms of non-state torture that I have touched on should perhaps be criminalised in their own right and we need the state to also take responsibility for supporting women to heal from their effects whether or not a conviction has been obtained.
Finally, in talking about the duty to protect women, how can that possibly be upheld when we are allowing men convicted of rape to have access to the female estate. The charity Women in Prison estimate 80% of women in prison have experienced domestic abuse and 53% abuse in childhood. Yet the prisoner called Karen White was allowed to transfer to the women’s estate despite being a convicted sex offender. The needs of all the women in the prison taking 2nd place to those of one man who wished to transition. He had not transitioned, did not have a GRC, yet still his wishes overrode the safety of the women, tragically two female prisoners were attacked and assaulted before he was moved back to the male estate.
Whatever your views about transgendered prisoners it cannot be right that the authorities are unable to prevent a man who has been convicted of serious sexual and violent crimes against women has male hormones and a penis from entering the women’s estate.
So, I’ve touched on just some of the ways women’s lives are affected by the policy and cuts that this government has delivered. I’d like to open the discussion out now for your views and experience.