Domestic violence – a gendered issue

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2015 National Women's Conference
15 October 2014

Conference notes that research from the home office has shown that nearly 90% of severe and repeated domestic violence is experienced by women. The Home Office report on Domestic Violence, sexual assault and stalking (findings from the British Crime Survey) reported that “women are the overwhelming majority of the most heavily abused group. Among people subject to four or more incidents of domestic violence from the perpetrator of the worst incident (since age 16), 89 per cent were women.”

Conference is concerned that on an average week in this country two women are murdered by their male partner in extreme cases of domestic violence, and 1 million women experience at least one incident of domestic abuse each year. UNISON and our trade unions are part of that society.

Conference notes that in describing domestic abuse as “gender-based” we are categorically not alleging that all perpetrators are male and all victims/survivors are female. Conference recognises that men and boys can also be the victims of violence. We also note with concern the rise in domestic abuse in same sex relationships: UNISON’s national LGBT Conference in 2013 noted that 37% of same sex relationships have featured non-consensual violence. Conference affirms our opposition to all violence, whatever the gender or age of the perpetrator or victim.

Conference reiterates our recognition that, in a sexist society, male violence against women plays a particular role in limiting the participation of women in all areas of civil life, including trade union activity. Therefore, we must address the particular problem of male violence against women.

In noting that domestic abuse is gender based we reiterate our recognition that historically physical and sexual violence has been used to control women, and there is still widespread tolerance for sexism and abuse of women. The Everyday Sexism project was established to record women’s experiences of sexism, harassment and assault – as at October 2014 there were 45,000 tweets and tens of thousands of posts on the website. The Zero Tolerance project in Scotland works with individuals, communities, women’s and men’s organisations, schools, the media and others to address the causes of violence against women, and bring about change – their research found that half of all young men believed that forced sex was justifiable in some circumstances; worryingly one third of young women also accepted this.

Conference welcomes the UN General Secretary in 2006 stating “Violence against women is not the result of random, individual acts of misconduct, but rather is deeply rooted in structural relationships of inequality between women and men”. However, we remain concerned at the lack of progress and the recent moves to dilute the recognition of domestic abuse as a gendered issue – for example by the media publishing sensationalist data on the number of incidents of abuse by women which ignore patterns, severity, repetition and circumstances.

Conference is concerned that women order their day and lives around the restrictions to safety and freedom of movement which the background threat of men’s violence imposes, sometimes without them even realising it. Some women were surprised when it was pointed out to them that their own “habits” of not going out alone after dark, or of holding their keys in their hands whilst walking home in case they are attacked, are carried out because of a fear of violence from men. The women reported that they’d never thought of it in that context previously, it was just something they did.

Conference notes that despite significant social changes men continue to grow up within a deeply misogynistic male dominated culture where violence against women is commonplace and acceptable.

Sexual harassment and male violence against women can – and sadly do – occur within the labour movement and within our trade unions and labour movement groups at all levels.

In 2011 new Crown Prosecution Service guidance was published following a review of allegations of rape and domestic abuse. The research recorded that “During the 17 month period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were just 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, six for making false allegation of domestic violence and three for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence.”

However, it is still the case that women report that when they have been a victim, they are not believed. They may face allegations that they inflicted the injuries on themselves and/or inappropriate questioning of their mental health status, alcohol consumption and sexual history.

In a Mumsnet survey in 2012, 83% of those who had been raped or sexually assaulted failed to report it to police and 29% did not even report it to friends and family. More than half of the female respondents said the legal system, the media and society at large is unsympathetic to rape victims.

Conference notes that the fear of stigma and the fear of not being believed prevent many women from reporting violence. In 2014, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Tom Winsor, said: “Domestic abuse is not only about violence; it is about fear, control and secrecy. It is essential that the police make substantial reforms to their handling of domestic abuse, including in their understanding of the coercive and psychological nature of the crime as well as its physical manifestations. They must create the conditions so that victims have the confidence to call for help, in the knowledge that they will be believed and kept safe.”

Conference notes that as a member-representation organisation, the situation facing UNISON is different to that of the police, and that we are obliged to represent all our members to the best of our ability. Therefore, in any incident or allegation there must, of course, be a fair and impartial investigation that protects the rights of all parties. Conference notes our branches manage this on a daily basis. For example, in a situation where a member has put in an allegation against another member, each member has a representative who is there to protect their individual interests and to support them, but any investigation resulting from their allegations is independent, fair and impartial.

Likewise, if legal advice were sought in a situation where both a complainant and the person complained of sought UNISON’s assistance, the same test would be applied to both parties in that there would be separate legal evaluation of the complaint and the defence, and separate representation for both parties, where this was judged appropriate within UNISON’s legal guidelines.

Conference believes that it is essential that anyone reporting violence is confident that reporting such an incident would be taken seriously, and that all women who complain of male violence, both in and outside of the trade union movement, have the right to be listened to, their allegations taken seriously and properly investigated with appropriate action being taken if proven.

Conference believes that in adopting this approach we would be showing our million women members that when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade union will provide support for them.

Conference further recognises that, as a self-organised group for women, we have an obligation to speak up for women’s rights and to defend women’s interests. We believe that male violence against women is not acceptable in any case. It must not be tolerated from those who hold office or power in our movement: our movement must be a safe space for women.

Conference therefore calls on the national women’s committee to:

1) Organise a fringe meeting at national delegate conference 2015 to improve understanding of the issues raised within this motion; share good practice throughout UNISON on campaigning and organising around ending violence against women; using the UNISON domestic violence guidance to negotiate workplace policies on supporting the victims of domestic abuse;

2) Work with the NEC to issue guidance to branches on:

a) how to support women who allege violence

b) how to ensure branches can represent all parties fairly and impartially in any investigation.