Last reviewed 26 February 2015

Domestic violence in the UK is widespread across races, religions, communities and cultures, according to a report released this January by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In its report, the Committee described the scale of the violence as “deeply troubling” and called for greater efforts in education and prevention. Martin Hodgson takes a detailed look at this issue.

What is domestic violence?

The term “domestic violence” describes a range of behaviour, from verbal abuse and threats through to rape and homicide.

Domestic violence is a serious problem. It is estimated that one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and that on average two women a week will be killed by their current or former male partner. Yet, many claim that the issue is not taken seriously enough by politicians and both the criminal justice system and health care services.

The problem is often denied or overlooked, or excused on cultural grounds. Many victims suffer in silence because they are ashamed, embarrassed or just too frightened to speak out and seek help.

Examples of domestic violence include:

  • physical violence, threats and intimidation

  • psychological abuse and coercive control

  • rape and sexual violence

  • sexual harassment

  • female genital mutilation

  • forced marriage

  • crimes in the name of “honour”

  • trafficking

  • sexual exploitation.

Men may also be victims, though the vast majority of such violence, and the most severe and chronic incidents, are perpetrated by men against women and their children.

The Joint Committee report

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is a select committee of MPs appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons to consider human rights issues in the United Kingdom.

Violence Against Women and Girls was published by the Committee at the end of January after a lengthy inquiry. The Committee was established to examine progress towards ratification of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty which seeks to protect the rights of women and girls and tackle violence against them, in the UK.

Ratification of the Istanbul Convention would mean that the UK would be obliged to have “co-ordinated policies” in place to protect against violence against women, to prosecute and punish perpetrators and to provide reparations for victims.

During its inquiry, the Committee found:

  • “a great deal of evidence” regarding the importance of education in preventing violence against women and girls

  • evidence of the importance of specialist local services to victims

  • concerns that it is often the women most in need that are “least well served” by current support services

  • evidence that the Government has not done enough to tackle the “unacceptable justifications” for crimes, including so-called “honour” crimes against women

  • evidence of an inadequate response by police to calls concerning domestic violence

  • victims with insecure immigration status, asylum seekers or refugees are groups of particular concern.

Committee members disputed assurances that the Government would “look at points raised by women’s organisations regarding locally delivered women’s services” and questioned the move to devolve support services to local authorities where cuts have left vulnerable women without support.

The Committee concluded that better prevention and education programmes would help stymie the use of “unacceptable cultural justifications” for such crimes across British culture. It supported the Government’s planned amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which will create a specific criminal offence for psychological or coercive control, but stated that it is not convinced that the creation of the offence alone will result in a change of culture. It also recommended that the Government consider a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and a review of training for professionals within the Criminal Justice System.

The Committee further recommends that:

  • the Government urgently prioritises prevention programmes

  • schools play a greater role in tackling cultural attitudes through a requirement to teach issues surrounding gender equality and violence

  • the Government adopt a national co-ordinating role for the provision of specialist support services

  • concerns of women’s organisations are addressed regarding difficulties in qualifying for legal aid

  • the Government address the “gap in service provision for women with insecure immigration status”

  • a standalone inquiry into “honour” crimes be set up

  • the Government ratify the Istanbul Convention during this Parliament and sign-up to its obligations.

Reaction to the report

Reacting to the Joint Committee report, Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, the national charity supporting women who suffer domestic violence, said:

“This report further highlights the catastrophic failings of the state to protect women and girls from violence. Little progress has been made to end domestic violence. Two women are killed every week in this country by a current or former partner – a statistic which remains unchanged for a decade – and too often opportunities to protect them are missed. This is a national disgrace.

“I welcome the fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report echoes many of Refuge’s own concerns on the state’s response to domestic violence. The report highlights how localisation and funding cuts are putting specialist domestic violence services – services that literally save lives – at risk, and that services for some of the most vulnerable have been hardest hit. The Committee has also emphasised the devastating impact cuts to legal aid have had on victims of domestic violence, and Refuge strongly backs the recommendation to review current evidential requirements for access to legal aid in these cases.”

Primary Care and domestic violence

In March 2010, the Government’s task force on violence against women and children published Responding to Violence Against Women and Children: The Role of the NHS, available from the European Institute for Gender Equality. This stated that all NHS and primary care staff should have a “clear understanding” of the risk factors for domestic violence.

The NHS, the task force said, has a vital role to play and a clear duty to help and contribute to multi-agency efforts to increase the safety of women and children.

The report recommends:

  • education and training for all NHS staff

  • advanced education and training for “first contact” staff and those working in relevant speciality areas

  • improving staff awareness of the associations and presentations of violence and abuse, and how to broach the issue sensitively and confidently.

Primary care staff should be aware of the signs of domestic violence, and should be trained to know what to do should they suspect that such abuse may be happening. Domestic abuse victims often enter primary care with a range of injuries and healthcare issues, and present a history which often escalates from threats and verbal abuse or bullying to actual violence. Victims can quickly become withdrawn and depressed, losing their confidence and self-esteem. Many women believe that the abuse is their fault, a belief often manipulated by the abuser.

Domestic violence involving staff

Primary care practitioners should remember that domestic violence not only affects patients, but also some primary care staff themselves, both as victims and perpetrators.

Signs and symptoms will often be spotted at work by colleagues and managers and may first reveal themselves as poor performance, persistent lateness or a poor sickness record.

A place of work should be a safe place for a victim of abuse. Employers that identify such a problem should be understanding and offer whatever help and support they can. Employers should take reasonable measures to protect their employees and enable them to access appropriate support services.

Domestic violence services and resources

A number of local groups, advocacy and support services can be found around the country. National services include:

  • A 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline for England on 0808 2000 247 and website at

  • Similar helplines covering Wales (0808 80 10 800), Scotland (0800 027 1234) and Northern Ireland (0800 917 1414)

  • Refuge — provides a range of specialist domestic violence services, including a network of safe refuges across the country, advocacy, child support workers, legal advice and outreach

  • Women’s Aid — a national charity with branches in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, supports over 350 domestic and sexual violence services

  • The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) — provides a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence.

A range of support is available for women and children from minority ethnic communities, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit, the Immigration Advice Service and Asylum Aid.