How not to end violence against women: The UK Strategy

In honour of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we dedicate this article to Claire Parry, killed by a police officer on 9 May 2020.

Last week, the UK police announced a new initiative being trialed to help prevent violence against women and girls.[1] The newly appointed national police lead for violence against women, Maggie Blyth, says the initiative is perpetrator-focused, involving “attempting to disrupt and track suspected sex offenders including rapists”. This two-year plan aims to “transform” how violence against women and girls is dealt with by police. It’s also part of an overall strategy to rebuild trust in the police after the high-profile rapes and murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa.[2] This new initiative has been presented as an innovative, novel way of policing violence against women, reducing the amount of scrutiny put on the credibility of victims. Does it deserve that celebration? Not a bit.

The framing of this initiative is border-line offensive. Presentation of a focus on perpetrators as ground-breaking is not a cause for celebration. It’s an admission that UK police do not believe women by default. It suggests that the police believe that violence against women and girls is a crime so often lied about that the standard approach is to interrogate the victim rather than investigate the perpetrator. And their innovative move is to bring these crimes in line with all other reported crimes which already put the focus on perpetrators. Essentially the police are announcing that they are going to start doing their jobs impartially, and seeking congratulations for that fact. The bar could not be lower.

Almost any other crime has a perpetrator-focused approach by default. If your house is broken into, Police typically don’t spend hours grilling you on whether you burgled your own home. Not starting from a place of believing women is rooted in an unsubstantiated belief that domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault reports are more likely to be false than other crimes.[3] This causes the police to put these victims under intense scrutiny before believing them. This myth is rooted in misogynist views that vengeful women lie about violence to punish men. This is patently untrue. The main report that supposedly bolsters such claims relies on pitiful data, and conflates ‘unfounded’ cases (cases without sufficient evidence) with false ones, thus artificially inflating numbers of supposed ‘false’ allegations.[4] This is rebutted by a far more reliable 10-year analysis conducted by the University of Massachusetts.[5] This study places the estimate of false reporting as extremely minimal. There is therefore no basis for assuming that a woman is lying when she speaks out about sexual violence.

On one view, this perpetrator-focused initiative sounds like it’s moving the police onto the right track and away from these misogynist views. However, details about the practicalities of the intervention are sparse. It could empower police to pursue other problematic policing tactics in the name of protecting women and girls. Given the racism that is embedded in police as an institution, it is highly conceivable that it could be misused to stigmatise and over-scrutinise people of colour. It could also be used to justify increased numbers of police patrols and greater police resources. This can be expected to have little to no positive effect on victim’s outcomes, especially when coupled with record low trust in police.[6]

We also can’t jump to congratulating the police on this initiative even if the trial does not lead to problematic outcomes. There is no guarantee that policing trials will be rolled out nation-wide. This initiative may be met with fanfare now, but may quietly die later in the process. If it is rolled out nation-wide, there is no guarantee that we will see the positive outcomes for women and girls, or that problematic effects on others will be avoided. The initiative means nothing unless tangible, positive outcomes are realized for women and girls, without over-policed groups being subject to extra harms.

This trial is the latest in a list of announcements made by the UK police and government in their strategy for “tackling violence against women and girls”.[7] The core of the Home Office’s strategy revolves around the police. The Home Secretary Priti Patel said, “I am determined to give the police the powers they need to crack down on perpetrators and carry out their duties to protect the public whilst providing victims with the care and support they deserve.”[8] This is a particularly tone-deaf statement to make in the political and social climate following Sarah Everard’s murder. The government needs to recognise that when police as an institution are the problem, increasing their powers and presence seems counterintuitive.

Other police initiatives under this strategy have been roundly criticized, including increasing police presence in and around night clubs, progressing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and recruiting 20,000 more police officers. All of these changes simply increase police power and presence, without addressing the institutionalized racism and sexism that make increased policing currently inappropriate in the violence against women context. The bill in particular has faced immense backlash from activists who see it as a vehicle for police to violently crack down on protesters. Violence against women may thus be used as a smokescreen for carrying out repressive aims.

Another development was the unveiling of an extensive communications campaign focusing on perpetrators and misogynist views. The efficacy of a mere communications campaign is questionable. And however useful this communications campaign may eventually be, we won’t find out any time soon. It has now been delayed until 2022. [9] 

And when none of these incredible initiatives protect women? Other friendly advice from the UK police has included avoiding walking home alone, challenging lone police officers, or flagging down a bus if women feel uncomfortable.[10] All of which demonstrates that victim-blaming still remains strong in police. Women should not be made responsible for protecting themselves, particularly when that advice involves challenging the authority of a police officer, an act that would particularly endanger women of colour. It also demonstrates that the strategy fails to focus its initiatives where they may be needed most. They focus on violence committed by strangers, whereas most gender-based violence is at the hands of women’s partners, friends, and colleagues. High-profile cases such as Sarah’s should not be taken to represent the extent of harms against women. Domestic violence is the daily shadow pandemic that all governments are failing to eradicate.

So what next for policing and violence against women? With any luck, a proper impartial investigation into misogyny in police. An inquiry chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini is set to assess whether more could have been done to identify the risk posed by Sarah Everard’s murderer before he killed her.[11] The question is whether the recommendations that come out of the report will be wide enough to make any lasting change in the culture of the UK police, and if yes, whether they will be implemented. What is needed is an emphasis on transformative change, not mere tinkering with individual police failures. A police force that genuinely addresses misogyny in its ranks would be transformational indeed.

It is important to increase trust in police by rooting out misogyny. But not so that they can exercise their powers more easily. It’s so that when women are abused, they are more likely to report harm to a representative institution that believes them instead of vilifying them. As it stands, many of these cases go unreported because of this lack of trust in the police. And that didn’t start with the murder of Sarah Everard.

We are publishing this article on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This day is a stark reminder each year that all nations have a very long way to go to address gender-based violence in their states. The UK is investing millions of pounds in their police, a “communications campaign”, and some more streetlamps. A much better investment would be in education. If we invest in teaching children proper sexual and gender education from a young age, we have a much better chance to prevent violence in future. If we break down societal norms of gender, stop pushing boys to be boys, and let boys be anything they want to be, we can redefine masculinity and prevent toxic masculinity from permeating our society. Women need revolution, not rhetoric.












Image from UN Women.

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