After two years of waiting, the new domestic abuse bill has finally passed through parliament. But does it go far enough to protect all victims of domestic violence? Niamh McCollum investigates
Almost one in three women aged 16-56 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. This figure has spiked significantly over lockdown, with the UN describing domestic abuse as a ‘shadow pandemic’ in June.
Despite it being one of the UK’s most common crimes, for years the law on domestic violence has been wildly ineffective – amplified by the government’s failure to create a strategy for protecting victims when laying out the blueprint for lockdown.
So it’s no wonder why the passing of the new Domestic Abuse Bill through parliament on Monday has been celebrated as a triumph for women.
The long-awaited bill (it was introduced back into the Commons in March after being dropped when Boris Johnson suspended Parliament in September last year) provides more support to victims and goes further to punish their perpetrators than ever before.
For the first time, for example, the bill sets a legal definition for domestic abuse that goes beyond the bounds of physical harm – including economic abuse, and coercive or controlling behaviour. The new law also places a legal duty on councils to provide refuge for victims and their children that never existed before, and will create more vigorous domestic abuse protection orders than we’ve ever had.
Other protections include the eradication of the ‘rough sex’ defence, which defendants have used to blame women for serious injuries or death caused during sex. This is hailed as a ‘victory’ by We Can’t Consent To This, a group that collated 60 examples of women who were killed during so-called ‘sex games gone wrong’ in the UK as part of a successful campaign to ban such a defence.
To this end, the passing of the Domestic Abuse Bill has been heralded by campaigners as a ‘landmark moment’ for women and by news outlets as ‘groundbreaking’ – and in so many ways it is. But with all of its progressive and life-saving provisions, I personally find it quite difficult to view the bill, in its entirety, as a victory for women – when I consider its shortcomings.
Firstly, the bill does nothing to support migrant women – whose insecure immigration status makes them even more vulnerable to abuse.
As it stands, immigrants with an insecure status are unable to access public funds or housing and refuge support. According to Kate Allen of Amnesty International UK, this leaves migrant women often feeling ‘trapped’ with no where to go for help. ‘There have been cases where women have gone to the police for help only to be turned away because they are migrants’, Kate told the BBC.
This lack of protection for migrant women has also been criticised by Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. ‘The argument the government uses is that these women should go home – and have their whole lives taken away by their abuser’, Phillips told the Telegraph.
‘In these situations the state is continuing the threat of the perpetrator who says ‘no one will believe you, you won’t have anywhere to go and have no support – and right now the abuser is absolutely right.’
Phillips proposed an amendment that would have provided support for migrant women with no recourse to public funds who met a legal aid test – but it was rejected.
This decision has been heavily criticised by The Step Up Migrant Women coalition – a collection of more than 50 BAME specialist frontline services, migrant and human rights organisations including Amnesty International UK and Southall Black Sisters – who accused the government of leaving a ‘gaping hole’ in legislation regarding the protection of migrant women.
‘The decision to leave migrant women out of this bill sends the message that their lives are not valued, they are disposable, they are second-class people, they are invisible’, said Pragna Patel, the director of Southall Black Sisters.
A spokesperson from the Home Office commented that domestic violence is ‘an abhorrent crime regardless of someone’s immigration status’, adding that the government has announced plans for a £1.5 million pilot scheme to fund charities helping migrant victims of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds later this year.
Refuge, the UK’s largest specialist provider of services for survivors of domestic abuse, has also pointed out that the bill makes no provision to make threats to share sexual images or videos (also known as ‘revenge porn’) a crime – with 1 in 7 young women experiencing such threats.
After two years of waiting, the new Domestic Abuse Bill is very almost here. It provides more protection to victims of domestic violence than ever before, and for this it should be celebrated. But while it’s a landmark moment for many, it’s important to remember that for the women left behind, it serves as a chilling reminder that we still have a very long way to go.