Public awareness of violence against women (VAW) is, arguably, greater than it ever has been.

While the #MeToo campaign has highlighted the prevalence of abusive behaviour of men towards women, research shows that over 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. This has led to VAW being called a 'public health epidemic'.

Campaigning for Awareness

The energy around VAW issues, borne of the frustration of victims and campaigners, continues to increase and build momentum. Campaigns and movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have gained traction; reports, such as Femicide Census, which lists women killed by men, have been produced; the red carpet at the BAFTAs was stormed by Sisters Uncut to highlight the issue; and in the House of Commons on International Women’s Day 2018, Jess Philips MP read out the names of all women in the UK killed by men over the past year.

These very public acts have brought the issue of VAW to the fore and prompted a serious and determined discussion around methods of prevention. While this is clearly essential, victims of VAW and those working with them also highlight the importance of providing effective support for those who can find themselves in a whirlwind process, being dragged from one service to the next at a time where they are likely to be experiencing trauma.

Fragmented Nature of Support

On International Women’s Day 2018, a group of senior representatives from parliament, NGOs, the police, academia and local authorities, met in the House of Lords for a seminar to discuss a report, ‘Violence Against Women: Towards an Integrated Approach’. The report was the result of a conference, ‘Violence Against Women: A Determinant of Health’, convened by Cumberland Lodge in 2017 in association with the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies. A key issue highlighted by the report is fragmented nature of the support offered to many victims of VAW.  Another concern was the quality of support, particularly within the healthcare system where many caring for victims of VAW lack specialist training.

The Need for Integrated Support Services

At the seminar it was reported that since the Cumberland Lodge conference there has been significant progress in training for healthcare professionals to help them improve their response to cases of VAW. However, despite these training programmes, designed for both GPs and medical schools, what healthcare professionals can offer is still limited. With GPs already stretched for time, it is difficult for them to receive comprehensive training or, significantly, to spot the signs of VAW during patient appointments.

Speaking after the seminar, author Winnie M Li, who wrote of her own experience of having been raped in her book Dark Chapter, reflected on the challenges she faced while navigating the complex system between healthcare workers, law enforcement and the judiciary. Li’s experience highlights the importance of an integrated support system for victims of VAW. Her experience of stranger rape also highlights the disadvantage of focusing solely on domestic abuse which the government is currently pursuing through the domestic violence bill.

'Slipping Through the Net'

Another concern is the unwillingness of some victims of VAW to disclose their experience. In order to prevent such women from 'slipping through the net', Dr Neera Dholakia insists that a positive and helpful first response to disclosure is vital, whether this be to a GP or a receptionist in a hospital. Ellie Ball, an independent sexual violence advisor (ISVA) at Cambridge Rape Crisis, believes in the importance of specialist training for health professionals in order to 'bring professional responses into line with those that exist for domestic abuse currently'. Ball is referring to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines which exist for health professionals to follow when they suspect, or are informed of, incidences of domestic abuse, but as yet, there are no such guidelines for VAW more generally.

Government Must Act to Ratify Istanbul Convention

After the seminar, Baroness Butler-Sloss argued that in order to take a step in the right direction the UK Government must act to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which, since its adoption, has been ratified in 28 European countries. The Convention outlines several ways to prevent and combat violence against women. It insists that countries who have ratified the Convention 'train professionals in close contact with victims; regularly run awareness-raising campaigns; take steps to include issues such as gender equality and non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships in teaching material; set up treatment programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence and for sex offenders; work closely with NGOs; and involve the media and the private sector in eradicating gender stereotypes and promoting mutual respect.'

Chairing the seminar, Baroness Butler-Sloss highlighted the opportunity for Cumberland Lodge and others to contribute to the consultation process for the forthcoming domestic violence bill. There has been talk that this bill could be the defining feminist moment of Theresa May’s premiership. As participants at the seminar noted, while the bill is an important step in the right direction, it is nevertheless a missed opportunity because of its narrow focus on domestic violence, rather than violence against women as a whole.

Recommendations for the Consultation Process

As a result of the seminar, the following recommendations will be fed into the consultation process:

  • As well as the guidelines already in place for domestic violence, NICE should establish guidelines for health professionals when working with all cases of sexual violence.
  • The number of specialist workers (ISVAs) should be increased to support victims of VAW
  • Cross agency communication should be improved so as to make the process of reporting and receiving support less fragmented and easier for victims to navigate
  • Implement preventative education within schools, with an emphasis on good relationships and consent within sexual relationships