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We are failing victims of domestic violence

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domestic abuse, BBC documentary, Behind Closed Doors, CPS, GBH, ABH, Documentary a heart-breaking insight into another reality of domestic violence.

“Stop it, please. No, please don’t.”

“If you love me, you’ll know the answer”.

“I can’t.”

“You can”.

“No, baby please”.

These were the distressing cries and shouts of one of three women featured in BBC One’s documentary Behind Closed Doors, which followed three victims of domestic violence over the course of a year as they tried to get their abusers convicted.

The film, narrated by Olivia Coleman, was raw and powerful, and offered a heart-breaking insight into the reality of domestic violence.

The first victim, Sabrina, managed to call the police and throw her phone under the bed after being beaten by her partner for over six hours.

The exchange above was all the police could hear when they answered the call, but luckily they were able to track the location of the phone.

Sabrina later revealed that her partner Paul had been threatening to throw a speaker at her head. Had the police not arrived when they did, he might have killed her.

Despite the length and nature of the attack, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did not think they would be able to get a conviction for Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) and wanted to reduce the charge to Actual Bodily Harm (ABH).

One of the women working with Sabrina told us, “unfortunately her injuries don’t reflect GBH. It has to be either breaking of the skin, like a stab wound, or skull fractures, broken arms and legs, and it’s not any of that.

“She had this awful beating and she looks horrendous yet she’s very lucky and she only really had a fractured rib.”

In saying that, she articulates what most viewers will be thinking: “It always amazes me that somebody can be beaten senseless but because they don’t have really serious injuries, it can still only be an ABH”.

Paul pleaded guilty to ABH and was sentenced to two years in prison, but given that most people only serve half of their sentence and he had already done ten months before the trial, he is likely to be released in a maximum of four months.

The ex-partner of another of the three women, Helen, is let off even more lightly than Paul. Despite a viscous assault on Helen, in which she was hit with a Playstation console, had chunks of her hair pulled out and was left with an imprint of a shoe by her right eye, her attacker was not sent to prison.

He was merely fined £1700. And that was as far as his punishment went.

Helen was justifiably shocked and frustrated at the outcome, saying: “I’m furious because he’s got away with completely and utterly kicking me to bits.

“He could have killed me and he’s walked away and is back out on the streets. He’s just gone unpunished and I can’t see him ever being brought to justice.”

What kind of message do minor convictions and punishments like these send to the perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse – and to society in general?

It says that ultimately, that these crimes aren’t a big deal and that you can commit horrific acts of violence against women and be faced with remarkably little in terms of punishment.

It is not unreasonable to question whether these cases would be taken more seriously if it was a man assaulting another man.

For decades domestic abuse has to an extent been normalised, accepted as a part of relationships and even regarded as inevitable by some, swept under the carpet, considered to be an issue that should be left for couples to deal with between themselves and people have been reluctant to interfere or get involved.

As Sabrina said, “I’d been under the impression from him [Paul] that people don’t really give a s**t anymore, they just keep themselves to themselves and don’t get involved in other people’s arguments.

“It made me think that that there was no help out there, nobody really cares, nobody wants to know.”

While the women in the documentary had fantastic help and support from teams within the police forces dedicated to domestic abuse, as seen in the documentary, the justice system as a whole is falling way short of providing what victims need – and deserve.

It is understandably difficult for perpetrators to be convicted if victims don’t report the abuse, retract their statements, and refuse to testify in court. And all too often men face no consequences for domestic violence because their victims are too scared to report them or go through with a trial.

But perhaps if society – and that’s also you and me – and the law took a harsher stance against domestic abuse, and it was openly discussed instead of being treated as a taboo subject, women would feel more able to come forward and make their abuser face the consequences of their actions.

Equally, if women were offered proper security and protection, they wouldn’t have to fear so much for their safety once they have reported their abuser – something which is a huge deterrent. Unless the police can keep them ‘in’ on remand, perpetrators are released and their victim is in potentially more danger than before.

The measures in place to prevent abusers from harassing and threatening their victims are still inadequate, and such behaviour is not taken seriously enough for them to be appropriately punished for doing so, or for breaching restraining and non-molestation orders.

When Helen gets a phone call telling her that ex partner Laurence has been released on bail she is visibly terrified, shaking.

One of the terms of his bail conditions is that he is not allowed to contact her directly or indirectly, but obviously that doesn’t stop him from doing so. It is incredibly naive and irresponsible to assume that a man who is capable of repeatedly and violently assaulting a woman will respect orders like these.

In general, it is the woman who is forced to abandon her home and job and move away for her, and often her children’s, safety. They are forced to leave their friends and family, probably the only comfort they have left, to live somewhere they don’t necessarily know or like, with the constant fear that their abuser will find them and continue to make their life hell.

Where’s the sense and justice in that? And quite frankly, as things stand, what are the incentives for women to report domestic violence?

Domestic abuse is ugly. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to deal with it. But violence against women is a very real and very dangerous problem, not only in the UK but around the world, and only by confronting it head on do we have any hope of eradicating it.

It could happen to anyone.

And we have a duty to speak up and fight for the vulnerable women who are – still – suffering behind closed doors.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline – run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge – on 0808 2000 247.

In an emergency call 999.

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