Heather D. Flowe, PhD
How to reduce violence against women? Follow the science.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
The UN have placed an emphasis on highlighting the worrying spikes in Gender-based violence (GBV) that have occurred during COVID-19 lockdowns across the globe.
Here in the UK, Refuge (a leading domestic abuse organisation) reported that calls to the UK Domestic Violence Helpline increased by 25% in the week following the announcement of tighter social distancing and lockdown measures by the government.
The rise in domestic violence cases alone have become such a marked problem that my Birmingham colleagues, Professor Caroline Bradbury-Jones and Dr Louise Isham, have labelled it as the ‘pandemic paradox’, whereby COVID-19 lockdowns have led to dangerous consequences for many women at home.
They rightly called for immediate interventions and additional funding for strained support networks in their paper, as many international experts from across the spectrum of GBV have done too.
To that end, the UK Government have pledged £11 million to support victims of rape and domestic abuse during winter and beyond, and a further £7 million for innovative programmes to stop domestic abuse happening in the first place.
This funding is welcome. But we should acknowledge that there is no short-term fix to solving the problem of violence against women. Not only should it not have taken a pandemic to bring the issue to the fore, it should also not be acceptable to simply return cases of rape and domestic abuse to the pre-pandemic levels. We can, and must, go further.
The focus now needs to be on prosecution.
Per MP Robert Halfon’s address to the House of Commons last year, only 15% of sexual violence cases are reported to the police, and only 7.5% of rape charges result in conviction.
Increasing prosecution benefits survivors of rape and, crucially, significantly reduces future cases. We know that many attacks are carried out by serial offenders, many of whom prey on vulnerable victims, such as people who are alcohol-intoxicated. By identifying and incapacitating these offenders, you not only reduce offences, but ease resourcing strain on police forces and, perhaps, change the societal landscape enough that people simply commit fewer crimes - knowing that prosecution is likely, rather than highly unlikely in the current system.
We could make great strides in this area by improving the quality of our investigations. At the heart of this would be how we gather, and interpret testimony given by rape victims.
Despite high-quality research that could help improve how testimony is gathered and used to facilitate prosecutions, we instead find that victim intoxication during the offense and the trauma inflicted on them by offenders are frequently used to undermine their memory reliability and derail prosecutions.
In the last few decades we have seen a step-change in how forensic evidence is used, driven by science, in our justice system. The science exists to have a similar change in how victim memory is perceived too.
Working with people throughout the justice system, particularly those who prosecute, to provide them with the tools to better grasp what is, and what is not, quality memory evidence should be central to our long-term plan to address GBV.
Though it has come about in particularly horrible circumstances, a failure to use this acknowledgement of a growing pandemic of sexual violence and domestic violence against women as a launchpad for improvement is unacceptable.
Yes, we must continue funding support networks and programmes aimed at prevention. But the closest thing we have to a ‘vaccine’ to this particular pandemic is increased prosecution of perpetrators.
Surely this year has taught us about the value of ‘following the science’.
Pictures: UN Women