Sunday, September 19, 2021

Why is Violence Against Women Still Not Being Taken Seriously?

Zoë Sharp


Last week, a report was published that used the word ‘epidemic’—but not in relation to Covid-19.


Instead, the comments came from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS). This government-run agency’s task is to independently assess the effectiveness and efficiency of both the police and fire & rescue services, in the public interest.


Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Zoë Billingham, said there was “a once in a generation opportunity to permanently uproot violence against women and girls, which is now epidemic in this country.”


This year’s report is not the first time the police in England and Wales have been found wanting in this area. In 2014, another report by the HMICFRS concluded that: ‘The overall police response to victims of domestic abuse is not good enough. Unacceptable failings in core policing activities, investigating crime, preventing crime, bringing offenders to justice and keeping victims safe are the principal reasons for this.’ 


The latest report, commissioned by the Home Secretary, looked at all local forces in England and Wales, and opened by saying ‘Fundamental cross-system change is urgently needed to tackle … violence against women and girls (VAWG).’  VAWG offences are classified as acts of violence or abuse that disproportionately affect women and girls (in this report, girls are seventeen or younger). This includes rape, domestic abuse, stalking, and many other crimes.


Although the report allowed that ‘the police had made vast improvements in the response to VAWG over the last decade, including better identification of repeat victims and improved safeguarding measures,’ it followed this by saying that it had also found ‘several areas where the police need to improve, including grave concerns about the numbers of VAWG cases closed without charge, and major gaps in the data recorded on VAWG offences,’ and suggested that the police could not tackle the problem alone. ‘The whole system—including policing, health and education—must take a fundamentally new approach.’


It is hard to believe we have entered the third decade of the twenty-first century, and this level of VAWG is not only still going on, but seems to be getting worse.


And, if not getting worse, then certainly it seems to be taken less seriously.


Police forces across England and Wales were listing priorities such as counter-terrorism, organised crime, so-called county lines gangs (which operate across different force areas), and some forms of child abuse. Ms Billingham said: “Violence against girls is not highlighted specifically as a priority within strategic policing requirement, the only real signal the government has to state what its priorities are.”


The report underlined data showing that ‘huge’ discrepancies were found in how different forces used the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS), which was designed to supply confidential information about a person’s past criminal activity to someone who is believed to be at risk of future abuse by that person. It is intended to reduce intimate partner violence.

Clare Wood

Clare’s Law


The DVDS is also known Clare’s Law. It is named for Clare Wood, who was murdered in her home in Salford in 2009 by a former partner with a severe record of serious abuse against women. He had been imprisoned three times—six months for breaching a restraining order; two years for harassment; and six years for holding a woman at knifepoint for twelve hours.


Unaware of this frightening history, Clare met George Appleton on a dating website in April 2007. They began a relationship, which was ended by Clare several months later. At that point, Appleton turned nasty and began a campaign of intimidation towards Clare.


Although she was interviewed several times—and Greater Manchester Police were aware of Appleton’s criminal background—in February 2009 Clare was raped and strangled by Appleton, who then set fire to her body. Days later, he was found hanged in a derelict building. Clare’s father, together with various politicians and journalists, mounted a campaign to give sufferers the right to know if their partners had previous history of domestic violence.


Clare’s Law was first implemented in England and Wales in 2014, although it is not, in fact, a law, but takes the form of guidance issued to police forces. It has since been extended to other police services in some areas of Australia and Canada.


Perhaps because divulging information about a person by the police raises issues over privacy, less than thirty-nine percent of DVDS applications by partners of potential suspects, or other concerned members of the public, end in disclosure.


And only fifty-two percent of proactive DVDS applications by police forces resulted in that information being passed on to a potential victim.


Three out of four domestic abuse cases reported to the police are closed early without any charges being brought. The HMCIFRS found that police forces were closing such cases either because of lack of support from the victim, or lack of evidence despite the victim wanting to proceed.


Ms Billingham said: “It is the police’s job to build the case for the victim. In many cases, it isn’t clear that forces are taking all the opportunities to undertake an effective initial investigation, or that they desisted from pushing back the decision onto the victim… When was the last time any of us heard of the police asking a burglary victim if they wanted the police to take action? It doesn’t happen but it happens repeatedly in crimes of domestic abuse.”


Perhaps the most worrying aspect of all this is that the data informing the report was collected in the year to March 2020—before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, with the resultant rise in domestic violence.


When I first came up with the character of Charlie Fox, more than twenty years ago, she started out teaching self-defence classes to women in a northern English city. Over the course of the series, she moved on from that into professional close-protection work. It is sad to realise that the need for those lessons she taught back then—how to avoid being strangled; to escape from a wrist lock; even to deal with an attacker armed with a knife or broken bottle—has not decreased. If anything, that need has grown…


This week’s Word of the Week is hüzün, a Turkish word for the gloomy feeling that, bad as things are at the moment, they are probably going to get worse. One can take comfort from the fact that this state of affairs happens so universally, there is a word in another language for it.




  1. Zoë, we had an example of this just this week: for more than a year, the FBI effectively ignored our elite Olympic female gymnasts when they lodged multiple complaints against Larry Nassar, their so-called team physician who repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped the gymnasts. Why can't men see what's wrong with this? Why is this a "minor" and unimportant crime?

    1. Thanks, Kwei. Sadly, news like this is all too common these days. I begin to think civilisation has peaked and it's all downhill from here.

  2. So critically important, Zoe. And What Kwei said! I have held the hand of a friend, while she escape repeatedly dangerous case of abuse from her husband. I saw his fingers in the black and blue marks around her neck. I talked her thought them process of getting an order of protection. After which It was hit or miss whether the police would come when he was following her in the street, but they did go to her apartment when he was banging on the door. At least that. The least is what they often do.

  3. A dear friend of mine is the founder and former director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center in New York City. Violence between strangers, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children is no stranger to her. A rape victim herself, I consider her a saint, as exemplified by her quote some years back to The New York Times describing the Center's purpose: “Some women talk about rape as the murder of the soul. We wanted medical competence, psychological competence, validation that a person who was raped was still a significant human being, and above all, compassion.”

    As for her take on where the world is these days....