DOMESTIC violence and abuse has been recently imprinted on the national consciousness through television documentaries (Love You to Death, BBC2), a long-running radio saga (The Archers), and constant media exposure.
And so it should be. The police receive, on average, one call every minute from someone reporting domestic abuse — a startling figure when we are also told that most calls are made only after an average number of 35 assaults. Research from government and charitable organisations suggests that one in four women in the UK will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime. Organisations such as Women’s Aid and Shelter paint a sobering daily picture of extensive injuries and chronic fear endured by women behind closed doors.
Domestic abuse is, however, defined by relationship rather than location. In the Government’s definition in 2015, it is “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over, who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”. So, men can also be victims, as can people in same-sex or transgender relationships. Offenders are widely dispersed.
Differences in the experience of men and women victims in couples are significant, however. Men may typically experience victimhood as undermining their masculinity, and feel even greater shame and reluctance than women to report abuse or to seek help. They may think they should be able to cope, feel protective towards their abusive women partners, or be afraid of triggering a counter-allegation of assault, and face the risk of losing their children.
Women, by contrast, often report rape as part of their abuse, and experience vulnerability against the force of male brutality. Many of them live with the dread of violent reprisals if they try to leave the relationship. Those fears are well-founded. Homicide figures suggest that domestic assault accounts for 40 to 60 per cent of female murder victims: the ratio for male deaths is much lower, at four to eight per cent.
Another difference is significant, too. Karen Ingala Smith, a researcher on domestic violence, argues that, in domestic-related deaths, men are more likely to be killed by someone they were abusing, whereas women are more likely to be killed by someone who was abusing them.
Victims of most crime may find consolation in that their ordeal is not likely to happen again. This is not true of domestic assaults. Of all crimes, they are the most often repeated, and the number of attacks suffered by a single victim can only be guessed at, as repeat figures are not collected.
Real causes of domestic violence can also lie under the radar. Abuse is too often attributed to external factors, such as alcohol, unemployment, or depression, or to emotional factors, such as frustration, outbursts of anger, or lack of control. In fact, most research suggests a very different picture. Perpetrators are often very much in control, squeezing their partner’s throat almost to the point of asphyxiation, or inflicting bruises or burns that are not easily detected.
Or the abuse can be psychological: isolating the victim, or playing mind games that undermine identity and self-esteem. It is now accepted that much domestic violence is a calculated and deliberate choice to hurt, damage, and dominate another person.
SO, WHAT do we do to bring change? We know from UN reports around the world that strong legislation reduces the rate of offending. Our Government accepts this. The UK movement to ratify the Istanbul Convention against domestic violence (IC Change) has just got a private member’s motion through a Third Reading in Parliament.
This initiative, begun by a young Christian woman who drew together activists from many other faiths and agencies, is now one of those vital advocacy lobbies that bring hope and change.
Yet law is never enough. Domestic violence can be eliminated only by a change in perceptions and attitudes. Breaking the silence, challenging entitlement, denouncement the rape culture, encouraging greater mutual respect, and providing adequate resources for those who are struggling are all on the agenda.
In every area of the problem, the part played by Christians is significant, both nationally and locally. I am encouraged by the growth of Christian student groups, such as Just Love and Speak, which expose the problems of gender-based violence and deliberately encourage gender justice on university campuses.
The most pertinent place for the Church to start is by addressing domestic violence within church families. Too many stories tell of failure of pastoral support, of clergy who felt out of their depth in dealing with disclosures, and church officers’ reluctance to get involved in messy personal lives.
Yet, both theologically and pastorally, we have responsibility in this area. The disorder of human brokenness should come as no surprise. The Church recognises the ubiquity of sin, and how it can affect and destroy any relationship; but we also believe in the reality of redemption: that, through the gospel of Christ, change is possible, and the future is full of hope.
Change is rarely instant. We need Christian organisations that work to prevent gender-based violence, such as Restored, or Spark, to provide help in pastoral training through their awareness programmes, church packs, and men’s groups. We need compassionate healing centres that offer prayer.
So many spiritual and emotional resources to combat domestic abuse are rooted in our faith. When the Church has the confidence and desire to learn to help others in areas of desperate personal need, healing and hope can become a reality.
Dr Elaine Storkey is the author of Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and overcoming violence against women (SPCK, 2015, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).