It is fitting that the Government has announced details of its proposed Domestic Abuse Bill on International Women’s Day.
Domestic violence and abuse happens overwhelmingly to women and the long-term impact can be devastating.
That the government is making this issue a priority is to be welcomed – but now is not the time to sit back.
It is vital that we seize the opportunity of the Domestic Abuse Bill to make lasting change for the most disadvantaged women.
For some women, domestic violence is one part of a wider pattern of violence that permeates their lives.
Some 1.2 million women in England have experienced extensive violence and abuse as both a child and an adult. That means they will have been sexually abused or beaten as a child, or both, and then gone onto experience physical and sexual violence as an adult.
Unsurprisingly, many go on to face multiple problems like very low self-esteem, poor mental and physical health, and turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.
These factors often mean they are vulnerable to further violence and exploitation, becoming trapped in cycles of abuse and inequality.
Many live in poverty, further limiting their ability to escape perpetrators.
Proposals as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill consultation to include economic abuse in the definition of domestic violence are welcome, but it is not enough.
Too many women, those who face a multitude of disadvantages often underpinned by these horrific experiences of abuse, are not getting the support and protection they need.
It is encouraging that as part of the proposals, there is a focus on women with complex needs and that the government has announced £2 million worth of funding for women at risk of offending or reoffending, the majority of whom have experienced domestic abuse. Of course, it is not enough, but it is a start.
While legislation is important – it needs to be backed up with resources. And what women’s organisations need more than ever to help women and girls who face violence, is resources.
Specialist women’s services, including for women with complex needs, are vital lifelines which must be properly commissioned and resourced. That means investment in services that support and protect women and girls so that they are able to rebuild their lives and fulfill their potential.
But domestic abuse is not only the responsibility of specialist services. Too often public services fail to respond or even acknowledge women’s experiences of abuse. We want to see this tackled as a priority.
This could mean introducing different ways of working, or even just ensuring that simple practices are carried out, such as asking women the question ‘have you experienced violence or abuse?’. Of course asking the questions needs to be accompanied by proper resources and support to make sure women get the help they need.
As part of the Bill, the government has also announced a Domestic Abuse Commissioner with the potential to hold local and national government to account.
The Commissioner must be given the power and resources to stand up for victims and to make a real difference to the support available. Their remit must include ensuring there are adequate specialist services in place and that public bodies are held to account over the way they respond to domestic abuse, but also all forms of violence against women and girls, including sexual violence.
It is promising that the government is taking domestic abuse seriously and putting it firmly on the Parliamentary agenda.
What we now need to ensure is that the details of that bill will be such that they make a truly positive impact, and that those positive impacts are reinforced by investment in the vital services that support women.
The Domestic Abuse Bill can be an opportunity to help women and girls escape abuse and rebuild their lives – and it must not be wasted.