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Domestic Violence and the Law: Examining Issues in Conceptions and Studies of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence has been defined by the U.K. government as ‘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.’ This definition is rightfully inclusive to the many men and non-binary people who suffer and have suffered from domestic violence, but the issue is most prevalent to women, with the World Health Organisation reporting conservatively that one in every four women who have been in relationships have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. This violence is most often conceived within heterosexual relationships and is perpetrated by their male partners. This focus on domestic violence as a gendered issue has meant most advocacy on the matter has come from feminist activism, leading the way for sweeping change in legal and cultural conceptions of these acts. 

Traditionally viewed as a private matter between spouses, advocacy has moved the issue into the criminal sphere, with such policies as mandatory arrest in place to ensure the perpetrators of these acts are punished. Despite this notable cultural progress, the issue of domestic violence within law and governance still retains progressional difficulties both in the support of women, prevention of repeat offences, and legal development across the globe. This article will attempt to explore domestic violence and its connection to law as it affects women. This will include looking at development of law on the issue, progress that needs to be made in supporting the victims, and the underlying causes of domestic violence as a gendered issue.

Progress on the issue of domestic violence has been hard fought, with progress made across many different cultural and legal circumstances, and to varying degrees of success. What progress there has been ought to be celebrated, with the many countries’ present understanding of domestic violence as a crime moving us way beyond the conceptions that merely strengthened the problem. Legal systems across the world had long conceived of domestic violence as an issue beyond legal governance at all, instead being a private matter between those involved, a domestic problem requiring domestic solutions. Progress against domestic violence only really began in the 19th century, when countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. began explicitly outlawing the practice. Yet most progress has only been made in the last century, with many countries like the U.S. and U.K. leaning into police interventions and arrests, and many other countries who long hadn’t beginning work to address the issue. 

Despite global movements to the contrary, the legal systems of many countries remain behind on the issue. Some still hold that domestic violence is private to the household, some are behind in conceptions of what particular violence can be addressed (such as only acknowledging violence within a marriage, only acknowledging physical violence), others simply don’t treat the matter with the severity it deserves. International law has done little to address the issue, as even though international organisations like the UN have worked to encourage legal response, and legally binding progress has been made in Europe through the Istanbul Convention, there hasn't been any strong international enforcement of these concepts. Progress on domestic violence may need the stronger support and enforcement of international law, as despite the internal movements of many countries, including the that which led to India’s 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, many other countries and governments still refuse to create laws to address the issue.

Yet despite their progression beyond the private conception of domestic violence, countries such as the U.S. and U.K. still retain problems in the way that they address domestic violence. The criminal conception of the perpetrators of domestic violence is an easy way to encourage political attention, as opposed to the civil, with politicians and legislators often more willing to address issues framed as crime than those framed as civil or social. This perspective of domestic violence as simply crime, rather than as a social issue, has led to a perspective that centers on arrest and hopefully prevention of repeat offences. One of the main ways progress has been made under this perspective has been through mandatory arrests, where any incident discovered of domestic violence results in police mandatorily arresting the perpetrator. Laws that utilise this act leave the police with less wiggle-room to allow domestic violence, and were initially found in studies like the Minneapolis DV Experiment to lead to a decrease in repeat offences. 

Despite the results of initial studies like Minneapolis DV, which helped justify the movement, many more recent studies have called these initial findings into question, finding that mandatory arrest seems to have little effect of repeat offenses, or in some cases may even increase them. Additionally, the efficacy of mandatory arrest as a way to address the domestically violent overlooks the damage done to the autonomy of the women they’ve victimised, who have no choice in the matter of arrest or how it is done, and are often made to take part in the court proceedings. This intrusion on women’s autonomy by the state often has an even stronger effect on women who are marginalised or in poverty, many of whom do not have the funds, life skills, or state support to pursue changes necessitated by their partner’s imprisonment, and lack the state support to obtain them after the arrest. More intersectional understandings of the issue, looking at domestic violence law and its effects on women of various backgrounds, is one growth area where further research is necessary.

Despite less legal progress in the area, a lot of conceptual progress has been made in the way we understand how domestic violence ought to be addressed, with many now acknowledging the need to provide local support systems for women alongside the criminal attention paid to their domestically violent partners. One study, written by Parmar and Sampson, chose to focus on practices that help women move past attachment to their domestically violent partners, with particular focus on providing support in understanding complex fears, ending emotional attachment, and acquiring new skills. Acquiring new skills particularly acknowledges the difficulty for women to leave domestically violent relationships when they don’t have the support to learn tasks formerly conducted by their partner. Another study conducted by Levinson, focused on the larger cultural factors that led to increased cases of domestic violence, particularly focusing on sexual and economic inequality, violent conflict resolution, male domestic authority, and divorce restrictions for women. Addressing some of these root cultural factors may be part of how domestic violence ought to be combatted.

These studies show not only that domestic violence is a complex issue that requires more than simply criminal solutions, but also the importance of facing domestic violence from a feminist perspective. This perspective helps acknowledge the patriarchal structure that makes domestic violence particularly harmful to women, and displays the way our culture allows and even promotes men to be violent. The inclusion of these more feminist perspectives has been incredibly helpful in many legal spheres, including the domestic violence court of Salt Lake City, Utah, which owes its current conception and good practices to the battered women’s movement. A more critical feminist perspective is also necessary as allowing us to change focus from the far too common question of why so many women stay with domestically violent partners, to why those partners are domestically violent in the first place. By turning state focus toward better governance of gender, through the support of women, and fighting the patriarchal issue of male violence, hopefully our laws can work to create a better society. A society that ensures that domestic violence is no longer normalised, and that women have support against the economic, social, and cultural inequality that make it so common and so damaging.


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