Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Clare's Law - will it really help women fleeing violence?


Trigger warning: discussion of domestic abuse and violence against women, including some common scenarios

At the weekend, I read an article in the Guardian about the one-year trial of Clare’s Law.  For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is designed to give women and men the chance to check with the police to see if their partner has a history of domestic abuse. 

It was really heartening to read in the article that some women in violent relationships have used Clare’s Law and felt able to leave their abusive partner. It seems to have been a positive force in these women’s lives. One of the women interviewed said ‘it probably saved my life.’

However, I remain concerned about Clare’s Law. Although it has undoubtedly helped some women, there are two areas where it feels to me to be another example of the Government making noises about ending violence against women whilst not taking real and effective action. 

I should note here that both men and women can access information about their partner’s history however I will just talk about women in this post. That is not to silence the experience of men survivors.

My first worry is that Clare’s Law puts the responsibility on the victim or potential victim to ‘avoid’ the violence of her partner. It says to women that if they have concerns, it’s up to them to act on those concerns by going to the police. To me, Clare’s Law skirts over the issue that to tackle violence against women we need to be looking at the behaviour and actions of perpetrators. It also raises questions about rehabilitation and sentencing of abusers. 

Clare’s Law tells women who think their partner is violent, or have a partner who has been violent towards them, to take action and find out if he has a history of violence. It is then assumed that, armed with this knowledge, women can (and should) leave. As the article shows, some women have felt able to do this. 

But what if you don’t?

What if you confront your partner with what you’ve learnt, and he promises to change? What if he blames his ex, and says that you are different to her and he will never do that again? 

Or, what if you don’t confront him because you believe he loves you and he won’t do it again? 

My worry with Clare’s Law is that it will be used – both maliciously and ignorantly – to blame the victim. If we tell a woman that her partner has a history of violence and she stays with him and then he is violent towards her, will people find it even easier to say ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ And, considering we already live in a victim blaming culture, what will this mean for trying to convict? How would this impact on getting justice for survivors? 

As I say, it is clear that Clare’s Law has been positive for some women who have left their partners after finding out about their past violence. But I can’t help but feel very concerned that it will be used to blame women who don’t leave. It puts the responsibility on women to find out about their partner’s past and act on that knowledge in an ‘approved’ way. It doesn’t seek to prevent violence; it puts no emphasis on men’s action. To me, the law doesn’t seem to understand or even consider why women might not feel able to leave a violent partner. 

However, my concern about Clare’s Law isn’t just about women who don’t leave. It’s also about the women who do 

Clare’s Law has been enacted at a time when the domestic violence support service sector is being destroyed by Government cuts. Women’s Aid estimates 230 women are turned away from refuges every day.  At one point, the National Domestic Abuse helpline was reportedly advising women fleeing violence to sleep on buses, in occupy camps – anywhere but home, because they had no refuge spaces to offer them. 

It’s one thing to tell women that their partner has a violent history. But what is a woman supposed to do with this knowledge if she has no-where safe to go?

Leaving a violent partner is incredibly dangerous. Women need to know they have somewhere safe to go to – alone or with children if she has them. Somewhere he cannot follow her and hurt her. It probably isn’t safe to go back to her family (if she has a relationship with them) or to a friend’s house. The safest place is a refuge, staffed by experienced women who can offer support, advice and care. 

Imagine a woman with a young child whose partner is violent. She goes to the police and discover through Clare’s Law that he has a history of domestic abuse. She decides to leave. Telling him this provokes more rage and violence. She knows she can’t go to her parents because he knows where they live. It’s simply too dangerous. She feels isolated from her friends because his behaviour has been controlling. She calls to find a refuge place for her and her child and there are none. 

Where does she go? 

At this point in time, where refuges are closing and the support for victims and survivors is losing funding, Clare’s Law seems almost cruel. What’s the point of telling a woman that her partner is dangerous and she should leave, if you have taken away all the safe places she could go to? 

It makes me so, so angry. Because I want Clare’s Law to work. In a world where every woman –  and there are 1.2 million women experiencing domestic abuse each year – got the support she needed to leave a violent partner, Clare’s Law would be a help. 

But in a world where Clare’s Law tells a woman her partner is violent whilst taking away her options to safely leave him? That’s a taunt. 

It’s great that women have used Clare’s Law to help them leave violent relationships. I worry though that, with the cuts continuing, many women will find they have the facts, but no-where to go. 

It seems to me that once again, the Government has found a way to say it is taking action on violence against women whilst ignoring how their policies across the board are actually causing far more significant harm to women trying to flee violence. 

Domestic violence helpline: 0808 2000 247



2 comments:

  1. "My first worry is that Clare’s Law puts the responsibility on the victim or potential victim to ‘avoid’ the violence of her partner."

    Although I think victim-blaming is a risk, my much greater fear is about responsibility - and therefore power - being taken away from women. I wrote about this when the law was first proposed.

    Because what won't have been reported (what we can only guess at) will be all the women who had a bad feeling about a new partner, used Clare's Law and found that he had no convictions. The Guardian article features women who had already been physically assaulted before they decided to investigate their partners - what if their partners hadn't been on the database? Would they have thought, "Oh well, it is my fault"?

    The vast majority of abusers do not have convictions. Victims rarely report to the police, and are even more rarely prepared to go through a trial. I have reason to believe my ex was physically abusive with at least two other women before me, but his record remains squeaky clean.

    Meanwhile, one of the greatest things we can do to prevent abuse is to encourage people to have high expectations of romantic partners, and to trust their gut when something doesn't feel right. Women who are vulnerable to abuse often have difficulty trusting their own instincts as it is - that's why someone can come along and takes control over their lives.

    Clare's Law effectively says, "Don't trust your gut, ladies. Find out if the guy has any convictions and if not, you can trust him."

    (Sorry for the rant, but I feel so strongly about this. I still can't really believe, especially given the objections of Refuge and other women's organisations, that the law went through.)

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  2. This is an excellent blog and I concur with Sian's concerns and also second the point made that no prior convictions doesn't necessarily mean that the women isn't in an abusive relationship. Violent men are often very affable and charming in company, but may be controlling and short tempered in private, as well as very well reasoned about their actions and behaviours. Of course a bad temper doesn't automatically signal violence and men do have testosterone! My point is that women often excuse bad behaviour or rationalise it, rather than face up to a relationship that isn't good for their wellbeing - either physically or mentally. A register of violent men will not protect all the women who are living a life in frequent fear, shame or humiliation by their partner.

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