26 November 1999
Tessa Mayes questions whether the latest campaign against domestic violence
will really benefit women
The face of Sheryl Gascoigne, ex-wife of footballer Paul Gascoigne, is now
officially associated with the campaign against domestic violence in
Britain. This week she launched a nationwide awareness campaign by Refuge,
the domestic violence charity, which coincided with the International Day
Against Violence Against Women.
The media went all-out to promote the campaign, with pull-out supplements
and star interviews. It is not hard to sympathise with the personal tragedy
of Sheryl Gascoigne, whose relationship with Gazza allegedly involved 'eight
years of physical and emotional abuse'. But I find it difficult to agree
with the message behind her domestic violence campaign. It not only
exaggerates the dangers for women but also presents a negative view of
intimate relationships. For most people close relationships put a smile on
their faces, not two black eyes.
Refuge runs advertisements about the facts of domestic violence which are
'not an exaggeration'. They claim that 'one woman in four is beaten by the
man in her life at some time in her life'. This view is echoed by the
Cabinet Office Women's Unit. In June 1999, women's minister Baroness Jay
launched a campaign to 'change the culture' in the way domestic violence is
presented. The campaign publicised the same statistic, that 'one in four'
women suffers from domestic violence. This presents a truly frightening
picture of family life.
So where does the figure come from? Surveys which serve as the basis for the
statistic use a broad definition of domestic violence which inflates
official figures. For example, a survey conducted by Islington Council in
1994 defines violence as physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse.
This means that a man has simply to shout at a woman for it to be counted as
a domestic violence statistic. Yet what relationship doesn't involve
arguments from time to time?
Using statistics in this way presents a distorted picture of family life and
intimate relationships in Britain. No doubt some women who experience
argumentative and manipulating partners feel emotionally abused but not all
women feel it counts as violence. Hurt feelings are not the same thing as
physical violence; to say so belittles the experience of the relatively
small minority of women who are physically attacked.
Refuge's domestic violence campaign claims to help women. Their helplines
were constantly engaged on the eve of their media campaign. Women callers
probably feel that advice about what to do in difficult domestic situations
But how helpful is it to portray people's relationships as having a 'one in
four' chance of turning degraded and violent? If one in four women are
victims of violence by men, this implies that one in four men harm women.
There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from such an exaggerated
figure: normal relationships are dangerous places and women should view
their man with suspicion and distrust.
Thankfully, not all women think of men as dangerous in this way or
themselves as victims. Whatever you think of the sad ending to the Gascoigne
marriage, most people's relationships are violence-free and likely to stay
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