International Women’s Day 2021: Uncovering Hidden Harms – A PhD Approach to Tackling Domestic Violence in the UK

International woman’s day offers an opportunity to pay attention to the ongoing problem of violence against women and girls.  In this post I will sketch out the parameters of my ongoing research into tackling domestic violence in the UK.  Although it is important not to overlook or undermine the suffering experienced by male victims of domestic violence, this is a highly gendered crime that is usually, perpetrated by men against women.


Time to read

2 Minutes

There are many challenges to tackling domestic violence.  The unusual intimacy between victims and perpetrators means that action taken against one party affects the other.  As Choudhry and Herring highlight, perpetrators often continue to exert control over their victims after involvement with the police or other agencies.

The pervasive impact of domestic violence on victims and their families has been highlighted by the pandemic, during which reporting and calls to helplines have increased nationally and internationally. With the Counting Dead Women Project recording twice as many women killed from domestic violence in the first UK lockdown alone. In response the government introduced code words for victims of domestic abuse to discreetly seek help (Ask for ANI) and invested additional funds into charities and refuges supporting victims of domestic violence and their children.  Now, for the first time in the UK, they seek to seek to make domestic violence a criminal offence in its own right through the Domestic Abuse Bill.

For many, police are the first and only point of contact in seeking protection from domestic violence. During 2019 alone, the police were called to 1,316,800 domestic abuse incidents. With few cases progressing to court and even fewer ending in prosecution, victims and perpetrators interact with the police more frequently than with any other part of the criminal justice system. It is here, therefore, that my doctoral research is focused.

In my thesis, rather than focusing on the victims or the perpetrators of this crime, I explore how the police understand and recognise the dynamics involved in domestic violence, with a specific focus on intimate partner violence.  Using evidence-based practice, I hope to develop new methods of tackling domestic abuse. In taking this approach, I follow Dobash and Dobash who have suggested that sensitising police to the complexities of the crime they encounter can help better inform and determine their responses.

I will be conducting three stages of research supported by a UK police force. The first stage will include statistical testing and analysis of domestic violence data to understand the kinds of violence that police encounter to create an awareness of the characteristics of the types of incidents responded to by the police. I will follow this quantitative analysis by a qualitative study of a selection of case files, to develop a more nuanced and contextualised understanding of a) the cases that police officers are confronted with and b) the decisions that they make in responding to these incidents. The final stage of my project will include semi-structured interviews with police officers to understand how police understand and reach crucial decisions.

As levels of reported domestic abuse and its impact are expected to remain higher than usual following the COVID-19 crisis, the Home Affairs Select Committee has put out a call for creative solutions to tackle domestic violence. I hope that my research can meet this call and help reduce the impact of domestic abuse on generations to come.