Last night’s BBC One documentary about domestic violence cases, Behind Closed Doors, was a sharp reminder of the realities faced by too many women in Britain today. One in 12 women in Britain will be a victim of domestic abuse from a partner.
Watching the opening scenes of the programme, I naively assumed that Sabrina’s partner was going to be found guilty of attempted murder. He assaulted her for six hours and the only reason he stopped was because the police arrived. In the words of the judge, Sabrina was lucky to be alive. In the end he was found guilty of actual bodily harm and is to be released from prison two months after the court appearance. The look on Sabrina’s face when she received this news will stay with me for a very long time. We can only hope that she isn’t one of the 43 per cent of women brave enough to report an attack who ends up being a victim again within a year.
Another woman, Helen, has been abused by her partner Lawrence for years. When she gathered the courage to come forward, he was bailed under strict orders that he could not contact her. Lawrence repeatedly broke his bail conditions, sending abuse and threats to kill and at one point visiting her when she had moved counties to escape him. When he broke his conditions, he was simply granted bail again.
As someone who follows every twist and turn in the saga of the Labour party, watching this programme was quite the wake-up call. Back in the real world, these are women who need our help
The criticism mounted on women who take back abusive partners is baffling. These women are victims of abuse yet the pressure put on them to leave their partners and cut off all contact seems to be higher than the duty of the perpetrator not to abuse. Something has to change. These are women who are harassed and beaten by their partners. Why are we surprised that sometimes they are too scared to say no to them? And more importantly, why do we put victims in a situation where this can happen by bailing perpetrators for months.
Attitudes as well as laws need updating if we are going to change women’s lives. It is clear that there is a stark contrast between what people think about assault generally and how they see domestic abuse. It is as though there is a subconscious belief that what goes on between families at home is their private business and nothing to do with anyone else.
Put it this way. I am a 24-year-old woman. If I was assaulted by someone on a night out, I would expect the Police to act and a prosecution to follow. If I was assaulted by a partner at home, I would expect very little to happen – at best a couple of months locked up, at worst absolutely nothing at all and being repeatedly told all the things I should have done differently. There are lots of campaigns urging women, and particularly teenage girls, to spot the signs of abuse and to come forward. This is important, but it needs to be backed up by a justice system that is going to believe them and actually prosecute and rehabilitate abusers.
It is the Labour party that needs to work with women’s groups and find solutions. We should be pushing for tougher sentences and compulsory rehabilitation for offenders. These men are committing hate crimes against women and there is no use in pretending that a few months in prison is going to change their attitudes or behaviour.
Back to Sabrina, the woman I listened to being beaten to a pulp in the first few minutes of the programme. I hope she does not take her partner back when he is released in a couple of months, but with a limited support network and crushed self-confidence I cannot help but think that that is exactly what is going to happen. These are the people Labour needs to be standing up and winning elections for, women like Sabrina who frankly deserve a better life.
If you would like to watch the documentary, you can find it on BBC iPlayer here.
Grace Skelton is a former National Policy Forum representative and Labour Students full-time officer, and now works in parliament. She tweets @GraceSkelton
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.