On Monday 6 July, in the UK, the Domestic Abuse Bill completed its third reading and was voted through the House of Commons to be debated in the House of Lords. The Bill institutes a series of legal advances: from creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes emotional and economic abuse to establishing a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to stand up for victims and survivors of violence. This constitutes considerable legislative progress with respect to protecting victims of domestic violence. However, it would be remiss to consider this legislation in isolation, given that it is set against a socio-economic context created by government austerity that has disproportionately affected women (the primary victims of domestic violence) and made them more vulnerable to abuse. This government’s policy to tackle domestic violence amounts to erecting a legislative smokescreen, whilst hollowing out the social and economic structures that practically help women to escape abusive situations. In this sense, the state remains sexist; “state provision of resources reinforces gendered oppression” (Olufemi, 2020, p. 23). An abolitionist feminist approach, as proposed by Angela Davis, can be used to imagine advancement beyond this sexist state. Abolitionist feminism places at its centre social justice, not criminal justice, and an emphasis on community support, not the carceral system as a means of achieving justice.
The current avenue via which the government is tackling domestic violence, exemplified by the Domestic Abuse Bill, supports a carceral approach. This approach, which focuses on incarceration and control of perpetrators, only addresses violence once it has occurred. For example, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is a position created chiefly to monitor the justice system and local authorities’ handling of domestic abuse cases in terms of the punishment of perpetrators. The new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Protection Order prevents perpetrators from contacting victims and forces them to take steps to change their behaviour, such as seeking mental health support. All of this is prefaced by violence having already taken place; policy is formulated after that fact. However, this way of framing the issue of domestic violence does little to address the circumstances which lead to violence in the first place. As such, it does not reduce the incidence of violence. In September 2013, the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to inspect how police forces respond to domestic violence. This exemplified the carceral approach of studying violence once it has occurred, and the discoveries made, from poor evidence collection to officers lacking skills to engage competently with victims, did little to induce any policy change that reduced the incidence of violence. For the year ending March 2019, the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse, with police receiving a call on average every 30 seconds to report a violent incident. The new Domestic Abuse Bill only advances the line of thought of previous government measures that have shown themselves useless in reducing violence and in this way is only a smokescreen of progress.
An abolitionist feminist approach to domestic violence instead asks the question ‘what do you mean by protection?’ (Davis, 2003) It frames protection as creating circumstances that prevent violence taking place in the first place. In this way, we move beyond an oppressive carceral structure and look to create a structure that empowers those who would be victims of violence to escape abusive situations before violence takes place. This means focusing on creating “refuge, routes to economic autonomy and stability and adequate welfare support” (Olufemi, 2020, p. 24) to empower victims to leave potentially abusive situations. However, this government has done the very opposite. Austerity has dismantled these structures of support with a disproportionate impact on women – the primary victims of domestic violence. From 2010 to 2017, 86% of cuts in government spending were in spending on services predominantly for women (Olufemi, 2020, p. 26). Women are thus more likely now to be unable to leave abusive environments, as the economic means to do so are absent. More specifically right now, the organisation Sistah Space, who support women of African heritage subject to domestic violence, are facing eviction from their building by Hackney Council. This just exemplifies the disempowerment of community structures that protect and liberate women from abuse fostered by this government’s policymaking. When these community structures are hollowed out, women do not have the means to escape violence before it takes place and can only look to the carceral state for some semblance of justice to be served after the violence.
This is not, however, the kind of justice we should settle for. Trying to mould a just outcome from circumstances of injustice will never work as well as simply creating circumstances of justice in the first place. When it is said that “feminist work is justice work” (Olufemi, 2020, p. 5), we mean, to quote Olufemi, “remedying the consequences of gendered oppression through organising and proposing new ways to think about our potential as human beings.” (Olufemi, 2020, p. 6) This does not mean reinforcing a carceral state; it means strengthening the structures, which range from economic welfare support to community refuge support like that which Sistah Space provides, that prevent circumstances of violence arising and thus moving beyond a carceral state. The emphasis on what we in our communities can do to change, or avoid, the circumstances that lead to violence in the first place is a way of thinking that embodies what Olufemi puts forward in the idea “feminist work is justice work.” It requires that we begin further back in the sequence of events that lead to violence taking place and imagine how we could create different circumstances and, thus, a different sequence of events that does not end in violence.
The abolitionist feminist approach has a clear appraisal for the current state of UK government policy regarding domestic violence. An approach that centres incarceration and the advance of the carceral state is neither sufficiently effective nor ambitious in the eyes of the abolitionist feminist. If we wish to really address domestic violence, it begins with reimagining the circumstances in which violence currently takes place. This is an approach that centres structures of community and welfare support to empower victims of abusive environments to escape them. The abolitionist feminist refuses to only address violence after the fact, and so too should the government.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Davis, A., 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete. Toronto : Seven Stories Press.
Davis, A., 2016 . Freedom Is A Constant Struggle. 1 ed. Chicago : Haymarket Books.
Olufemi, L., 2020. Feminism Interrupted. 1 ed. London: Pluto Press.