Domestic violence takes a heavy toll on society, a toll which falls heaviest on women and children. Two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners in England and Wales, and one in four UK women will experience it in her lifetime. Nearly 90 percent of those who experience four or more instances of physical violence are women with more than one form of violence in their relationships. It’s clear the burden of domestic violence falls overwhelmingly on women.
Domestic violence affects women more because it is rooted in inequalities between men and women. Widespread sexist attitudes encourage many men to feel they have the right to control a female partner and make women feel it is their job to try and make a male partner happy regardless of the cost to themselves. Women’s lesser access to highly-paid jobs and the ‘motherhood penalty’ leave many financially reliant on male partners. These partners may be controlling and abusive, and may use financial means to ensure that control. Many other similar inequalities compound the problem, giving men access to the means of control in relationships and leaving women unable to escape.
Widespread negative attitudes about women, for example that women are over emotional, weak, and manipulative, also lead many to deny the reality of domestic violence. Women are often not believed when they report domestic violence because people think ‘she’s overreacting’, ‘a strong woman would just leave’, or ‘she’s making it up so he can’t see his children’. This stands in the way of women even recognising that they are experiencing domestic violence, never mind seeking help.
The cost of this is too high for any civilised society to bear. No one would accept a problem which put one eighth of the population at risk of serious injury or death under any other circumstance; we cannot allow such a high level of harm from domestic violence on the basis that ‘it’s a women’s problem’. No one should be subject to the kind of psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional torture which makes up intimate partner violence. Reducing the inequalities in society which cause domestic violence, and thereby preventing the harm and deaths to which such violence leads, would be progress for all of us.
And domestic violence has much wider impacts than the direct harm caused to the women who experience it. It is not ‘just a women’s problem’. It impacts every one of us. Most obviously, it harms the 750,000 children who experience it directly or indirectly every year. Witnessing or being exposed to domestic violence as a child is now recognised as emotional abuse. If we don’t seek to address the causes of domestic violence, we are complicit in that abuse.
There’s also the impact on friends and family of the women and children affected. Many perpetrators will destroy their partner’s relationships with family and friends to keep her isolated. Many will threaten or attack family members or friends if a woman seeks or manages to escape.
In a broader sense, the isolation of women experiencing domestic violence and the lengths to which they have to go to escape has a negative impact on communities. Huge numbers of women, effectively refugees in their own country, are forced to move cross-country to escape violence and control. They move from areas where they may have roots, jobs, and support networks, and where their children are settled to new places where they have no housing, employment, or support system and must rely on voluntary and statutory agencies simply to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. This internal migration leaves gaps in women’s original communities and increases demands on services in their new communities.
This demand on services is linked very closely to the financial costs of domestic violence, which all of us bear as tax payers. Domestic violence costs the UK an estimated £16billion per year. Some of these costs will be borne by businesses that lose valuable members of staff to domestic violence. Others are borne by the emergency, health, and social care services that treat women’s injuries and have to pick up the pieces left by perpetrators.
By addressing the inequalities in society that lead to domestic violence, we could significantly reduce the number of women and children affected. Women could stay in employment: reducing costs for businesses, improving productivity, and helping our economy to thrive. They could stay plugged into communities: maintaining relationships with friends and neighbours and supporting local businesses and causes. Families would no longer have to face the loss of women who have to flee violent partners, and generational links within families could be built up. Fewer children would have to face the significant emotional and physical harm posed by violent fathers, nor would they have to be uprooted from their families, schools, and loved ones. Preventative work by the police, specialist domestic violence service, and through education can be expensive, but would very quickly recoup financial savings by preventing deaths and serious injuries.
Perhaps most importantly, equality for women, and an end to sexism, would decrease the number of women killed or otherwise harmed by domestic violence, and that would be progress for all of us.