Two women every single week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Women are approximately twice as likely to experience domestic abuse than men, but it is women’s voices that seem to be ignored in media coverage of cases. Furthermore, many feel that the systems in place for protecting women and delivering justice in cases of domestic violence simply aren’t doing enough.
A lack of empathy for women
The representation of cases of domestic violence and murder in news media often doesn’t allow the victim’s voice to be heard. There are examples of stories published about victims which even attempt to justify or express sympathy for the perpetrator’s situation. Brothers Ryan and Luke Hart have publicised their disappointment with the media representation of their family’s experience. After their father murdered their sister, Charlotte, and their mother, Claire, in 2016, articles in mainstream news media trivialised the story and even included complimentary comments about the perpetrator. The Sun published quotations describing the murderer, Lance Hart, as ‘the nicest guy you could ever meet’ and the parents as ‘the loveliest couple ever.’ Meanwhile, their mother’s abuse and tragic circumstances were largely ignored.
The two survivors, Ryan and Luke, are trying to raise awareness of the poor handling of their mother and sister’s murders. It is clear from the representation of their story that there is a lack of meaningful engagement with women’s stories, the stories behind their abuse and deaths, while newspapers are quick to try and justify such horrific acts of violence. In this particular case, Claire and Charlotte Hart’s murders were explained away with excuses such as ‘money issues’, arguments in the marriage, and prospects of divorce.
This example and many others show that women’s issues are not being taken seriously enough. Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte recently criticised judges for showing sympathy for men who had murdered women, granting mitigating circumstances based on the ‘hurt feelings’ of the murderers. Meanwhile, women who have killed partners after suffering years of domestic violence and abuse often are not awarded the same luxury of empathy or consideration of their mental states and living conditions. Sally Challen, jailed in 2011 for murdering her husband after enduring coercive and abusive behaviour was released only this year, following a reassessment of her situation. Previously, at the time of her original trial, Challen was presented as a jealous, vengeful wife and there was no mention of her husband’s coercive control.
Systemic problems with handling domestic violence
The approach of the police and law enforcement processes regarding domestic violence have been criticised for not fully understanding the issues facing women in dangerous and abusive relationships. The murder of Linah Kezah in 2013 by her ex-partner is an example of police failure to take domestic violence seriously; Kezah was stabbed to death having made several calls to police. Even in this extreme case, it took six years of protesting until accountability was acknowledged for the police’s failure to protect her. In 2016, Shana Grice was stalked and then murdered by her ex-boyfriend after reporting him to the police five times. The nineteen-year-old was even fined for wasting police time; instead of protecting her, they stereotyped her as an over-dramatic young woman.
There are legal measures in place that are designed to protect women from domestic abuse and sexual violence, however the approach and understanding of police surrounding these issues is proving much more difficult to change. In the past, victims have not been protected from perpetrators who have been released on bail, and harassers have been able to remain in contact with victims as a result.
Why empathy is crucial
With the lack of police understanding for issues of domestic violence and abuse, women may feel less able to seek help when in vulnerable situations. The UK police force is disproportionately male-dominated, with women making up less than 32% of every possible rank, while news stories that do not engage with female points of view offer little encouragement for victims looking for a way out. The services that are supposed to be helping these women do not always appear to have a friendly and welcoming face, and the media has a role to play in women’s understanding of what will happen if they seek help. When even cases of murder are not taken seriously, women who already have to exert a huge amount of courage to speak out are faced with a seemingly non-sympathetic, victim-blaming system.
What’s being done about this?
While the issues of police and media approaches to domestic violence cases are serious and daunting, there are several moves being made to help protect victims and prevent more serious consequences. Fortunately, a new law has just come into use which criminalises psychological and emotional abuse and coercive behaviour. Moreover, it requires courts to decide whether or not to impose non-harassment orders to protect sufferers from any further abuse. In these cases, women may feel more confident that they are safe from their abuser once arrests have been made.
Various campaigns are being carried out to promote awareness. Academic Karen Ingala Smith’s blog ‘Counting Dead Women’ promotes the remembrance of women who have died due to domestic violence, while she and Caroline Criado-Perez have worked together to campaign for recognition.
As advocates for women’s rights and campaigners against gender discrimination, JAN Trust is hopeful that further improvements will be made to help prevent and tackle domestic violence. Click here to find out more about the work JAN Trust has done over the last 30 years to support women and young people across the UK.