The anticipated Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill has finally been pushed through Parliament after months of delays attributed to Brexit, the general election and the Coronavirus crisis. However, despite taking over a year to get what Theresa May pitted as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” right, the Bill in its final form bitterly fails in its objection to safeguard all women and girls from abuse and violence.
Undoubtedly the Bill presents ground-breaking changes to the ways in which the UK seeks to tackle domestic violence – a practice which is costly in both human and economic terms, taking the lives of two women per week to the tune of £66 billion per year. For the first time, it would appear the Government has listened to survivors: family courts will put an end to the practice that has seen perpetrators cross-examine their victims. A new Domestic Violence Commissioner will be appointed along with new types of restraining orders and criminal sanctions. But perhaps most revolutionary of all lies in the UK’s first legal definition of domestic abuse which recognises financial abuse, coercive control and non-physical behaviour.
The Bill clearly can’t come soon enough. On average, five women a week were murdered during COVID-19 lockdown, according to Counting Dead Women and The Femicide Census. For far too long, victims have been forced to suffer in silence or they have completely lost confidence in the criminal justice system with delays stretching up to 18 months before being able to bring their abusers to justice. Both domestic abuse and rape convictions have plummeted to all-time lows, and while the Bill presents fresh hope that the UK is making moves to tackle what the UN has dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls in the UK, there is far more work to be done. Indeed, the Bill will be entirely pointless if the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) continues to let abusers and rapists walk free.
However, even with an invigorated justice system, the Domestic Abuse Bill remains fragmented and incomplete as migrant women and ‘honour’-based abuse survivors are unacceptably left behind.
The omission of migrant women from the Bill has been well documented. Campaigners have long shed light on the issue that women with an insecure immigration status in the UK are left to fall through the cracks for a multitude of reasons. First, they are reluctant to report abuse to the authorities out of a well-founded fear of detention, deportation or destitution and the second their condition with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) often leaves them financially unable to flee abuse – particularly as refuges in the UK do not have the funding to accept women without housing benefits. Recommendations made by the Step Up Migrant Women coalition and even the Parliamentary Joint Committee to establish a firewall between victims and immigration enforcement has fallen on deaf ears. MPs further voted against an amendment that would have allowed migrant abuse victims to access public funding only recently, too. As it stands, only women with a Partner Visa fleeing violence can seek three months of emergency funding.
The case is sadly similar for women (both British and migrant) ensnared in ‘honour’-based abuse. Despite the fact ‘honour’-based violence (HBV) lends many tactics from domestic abuse such as coercion, threatening and controlling behaviour and physical violence, HBV as a standalone form of abuse has not made its way into the many laudable clauses of the DA Bill.
Campaigners and charities like Savera UK are arguing that the Bill in its current form only identifies immediate family members to be perpetrators of abuse, yet in the case of HBV, victims can be harassed, abused, coerced, controlled, threatened and physically attacked by extended and multiple family members all at once – or even members of their social group or local community.
These vicious and demeaning acts are carried out in a bid to protect so-called ‘honour’ and can often manifest into forced marriage, child marriage, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and ‘honour killings’ where a victim is murdered to ‘spare’ her family from their perceived shame. Like domestic abuse, its roots lie in outdated views around gender roles, yet in HBV cases, women are expected to carry the burden of bringing ‘honour’ to their families.
Because HBV often occurs behind closed doors, leaving victims trapped, isolated and locked up with their abuser(s), it is increasingly difficult for them to escape and seek support. The Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVN) estimates there are 12 ‘honour’ killings of women and girls in the UK every year, and between 8,000 to 10,000 forced marriages. However, charities on the frontline consider the figures to be a drop in the ocean to the real scale of the abuse. Numerous report receiving hundreds of urgent calls for help, from women at the point of crisis, every month.
However, the problem lies in the fact ‘honour’-motivated crimes do not appear in UK legislation. Perpetrators can only be prosecuted in line with the specific offence committed, such as assault, grievous bodily harm, harassment, stalking and so on.
To make matters worse, the UK has dragged its feet in ratifying its commitment to the Istanbul Convention – the treaty that outlines a multinational approach to combat violence against women and girls. The delay to establish the convention has allowed perpetrators of ‘honour’-based violence to flee the UK and evade justice. Even in the case of murder, the UK has been unable to extradite abusers. Movements to establish the treaty as an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill were dropped in the latest vote in the House of Commons.
It is clear that the Domestic Abuse Bill cannot and will not protect all women seeking to escape domestic and familial abuse. Despite a swathe of criticisms and backlash, it would appear the Government is resolute in perpetuating the ‘perfect victim’ myth – that only white, British women experiencing domestic abuse by their partner are worthy of protection.
Without sweeping reform, women and girls will continue to be abused and murdered all in the name of ‘honour’, but the shame truly lies with the Home Office.
This article has been provided by Olivia Bridge, a representative of Manchester immigration lawyers.