Being hit by a partner is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ – when are we going to stop blaming women?

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 21 September 2017

There is an epidemic of domestic abuse in this country. More than a quarter of women aged 16 to 59 have experienced abuse at some point in their lives, according to the government’s own figures. Many victims are trapped in violent relationships, unable to leave because refuge places are in short supply and they have nowhere else to go.

In such circumstances, who could possibly believe that staying with a brutal partner is a choice, rather than a counsel of desperation? Yet a major new report shows that too many of the people who provide front-line services – police officers, social workers, health professionals, youth offending teams and probation officers – apparently believe that putting up with domestic abuse is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

The conclusions of the report – written by inspectors from four government bodies, including Ofsted – make for distressing reading. The inspectors looked at what was being done to support child victims of domestic abuse in six local authority areas up and down the country, from the north of England to the home counties. In some cases, they found that child victims were being ignored because police officers believed they had made a ‘lifestyle choice’.

The inspectors even found reports that talked about victims learning to ‘make better relationship choices’, as though anyone – adult or child – would actually choose to live with emotional or physical abuse.

‘We found instances of language being used that incorrectly held victims responsible for the risk of domestic abuse,’ the inspectors say. ‘We also found instances of inappropriate practice, including a police log that had been updated to state that a safeguarding visit would not be appropriate because both parties were “as bad as one another”’.

Men are sometimes victims but we know that women are twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence, according to the Office for National Statistics. Yet the notion that both partners are equally culpable is stubbornly hard to shift, whether we’re talking about statutory bodies or members of the public.

‘Why didn’t she leave him?’ people ask when a woman is murdered by her partner, even though statistics show that victims are at greatest risk immediately after leaving a violent, controlling man. It’s not that long since police officers used to describe violent incidents in the home as ‘ just a domestic’, as though such assaults belonged in a lesser category.

These attitudes are wearily familiar, which doesn’t make them any the less shocking when they appear in an official report. Even more astounding is the habit of assuming that children bear some responsibility for the damage they suffer at the hands of adults – and the fact that it is still going on

It should be obvious that children can’t make ‘lifestyle choices’ and they certainly can’t give consent, legally or morally, to being in an abusive relationship. Back in 2013, a report into the activities of sex-grooming gangs in Rochdale rightly caused outrage. One of the victims, a girl who was repeatedly raped at the age of 15, revealed that social workers had told her parents she was a ‘prostitute’ who had made a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Things were supposed to have changed in the wake of such scandals. Yet it’s been revealed in the last few days that draft guidelines drawn up by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) would allow child victims of sexual exploitation to be denied compensation on the grounds that they ‘consented’. The guidelines have been described as ‘deeply shocking’ by the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, who is calling on the government to rewrite them.

At the heart of tall these scandals is a long-standing tendency to focus on the behaviour of victims instead of perpetrators. Official agencies are still asking ‘why did they put up with it?’ when they should be looking at what allows perpetrators to get away with abuse for so long. The authors of this latest report on the treatment of domestic abuse are clear that there needs to be a ‘sea-change’ in attitudes. They are calling for ‘a widespread public service message designed to shift behaviour on a large scale’.

It isn’t hard to work out what that message should be. Each year, an estimated 1.3m women experience domestic abuse in this country, according to official figures. When are we going to stop blaming them for being beaten up by their partners?

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