Uneasy Bedfellows and Unintended Consequences: Gendered Violence, The Family and The State

Following a string of high-profile crimes against women and girls, and a revitalised movement to end gender-based violence (GBV) in the public and private spheres, GBV is firmly at the forefront of the policy agenda. The past decade has seen the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the passage of landmark legislation on domestic abuse, as well as ongoing discussions about promoting, and protecting, equal access to digital spaces for women and marginalised communities.

In a period of intense public concern about GBV, and renewed debate about the adequacy and equity of criminal justice responses, the event was designed to provide a cross-disciplinary forum for researchers, advocates, practitioners and experts by experience to share knowledge and frame policy recommendations.

The virtual conference took place on 15 March 2022 at the Institute for Social Justice and Crime, University of Suffolk, and was funded by an Opportunity Grant from the Social Policy Association. The event was attended by more than 70 delegates from across the UK, attracting attendees from a range of research and practice backgrounds, including professionals from the statutory and voluntary sectors.

The morning session featured three plenary speakers.

Professor Liz Kelly opened the conference by speaking about the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and the importance of collective memory when seeking to interpret, learn from and build on feminist engagements with, and challenges to, the state. While the newly-introduced Act represents feminist gains on some fronts, it falls radically short in relation to victim-survivors with insecure immigration status.

Professor Aisha K. Gill discussed systemic disparities in criminal justice and state responses to GBV, including racist over-policing of Black and minoritised communities, and the historic characterisation of forms of violence that disproportionately affect minoritised women and girls (e.g. forced marriage, ‘honour’ based abuse) as separate and distinct from other forms of GBV.

Emeritus Professor Gill Hague noted that feminist negotiations with the state locally and nationally have yielded tangible outcomes, including policy developments and funding for frontline services. However, superficial engagements with the ending VAWG sector have been used as a ‘smokescreen’ to mask a lack of meaningful action, while diverting time and resources from advocacy and frontline work.

The afternoon featured six speakers.

Victoria Holt discussed her research on sex workers’ experiences of domestic abuse, labour and agency, exploring how socioeconomic and cultural factors such as poverty and the stigmatisation of sex work disempower victim-survivors and create a conducive context for abuse. Feminist responses to sex work must account for and address these material conditions rather than relying on blunt instruments such as the criminalisation of buying sex, which act to further marginalise sex workers.

Dr Janet C. Bowstead explored the limitations of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in relation to meeting women and children’s service needs. Part 4 of the Act introduced a statutory duty for Tier 1 Local Authorities to provide safe accommodation for domestic abuse victim-survivors. However, implementation of this duty is based on unpublished needs assessments conducted by local authorities, with no ringfenced funding or minimum level of service provision.

Erin Rennie spoke about her research on the impacts of gendered online abuse and its relationship to women’s advocacy. Virtual spaces provide an accessible forum for women and girls to engage in advocacy and give voice to shared experiences. When accessing these spaces, however, women and girls are disproportionately subject to online abuse, particularly when engaged in feminist analysis or activism.

Megan Hermolle explored their research on the interconnections between historic levels of attrition in rape cases, risk-averse decisionmaking by the Crown Prosecution Service and the discursive construction of rape suspects during police interviews.

Dr Lisa DeBlasio discussed institutionalised mother blaming and secondary victimisation within child protection and public law proceedings, which contributes to widespread invisibilisation of domestic abuse perpetrators, while birth mothers subjected to abuse are framed as ‘culpable victims’.

Dr Dev R. Maitra spoke about domestic abuse and intimate partner-perpetrated femicide in the context of Covid-19 mitigation measures like the ‘unprecedented’ lockdown policies instituted and legally enforced in the UK.

Pressing problems, emerging themes

The event highlighted that there is no univocal ‘feminist’ position, although common themes began to emerge over the course of the day. While there was widespread agreement that the state remains deeply flawed in relation to sex, gender, race and migration, speakers such as Professors Liz Kelly, Aisha K. Gill  and Gill Hague noted the benefits of strategic engagements embedded within a wider social movement and collective action framework; holding the government to account from the margins while at times taking a seat at the table.

The speakers also showcased how both state action and inaction may contribute to conducive contexts for GBV, whether through misconceived (or poorly implemented) interventions to disrupt sex work, sweeping Covid-19 mitigation measures designed and implemented with little consideration for domestic abuse victim-survivors, or laissez faire approaches to regulating gendered abuse in digital spaces.

Overall, the event powerfully illustrated the need for any interventions designed to combat GBV to adopt a more consultative and inclusive approach that centres the needs of marginalised women and girls, as well as for an equal (or greater) investment in monitoring implementation and emergent outcomes as in driving forward new legislation.

The visualisation of the event (click image below) was produced by graphic facilitator Dr Pen Mendonca.