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A hidden horror

Rakib’s Britain: Domestic abuse is happening behind closed doors — and within closed cultures

“A hidden horror” is the latest article in Rakib Ehsan’s new online column for The Critic, “Rakib’s Britain”. The previous article, on putting the family back at the centre of our social policy, can be read here.

As Britain slowly recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a hidden epidemic that needs to be tackled with great urgency: domestic abuse. 

During the pandemic, there was a surge in domestic abuse

A new report published by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) exposes the true scale of domestic abuse in modern-day Britain. Domestic abuse affects the physical and mental health of over two million people — 1.6 million women along with 757,000 men. It blights more lives every year than dementia, prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. From the year ending in March 2019, there has been a 20 per cent increase in domestic abuse offences. During the pandemic, there was a surge in the incidence of domestic abuse. Nationwide helplines reported a significant increase in calls — with the National Domestic Abuse Hotline reporting a spike of 65 per cent. Quite remarkably, only 17 per cent of victims report their experiences of domestic abuse to the police (preferring to reveal such sensitive information to general practitioners [GPs], midwives and health visitors). 

The CSJ report worryingly highlights how identity politics and a broader culture of political correctness have paralysed our efforts to combat domestic abuse — especially when it comes to protecting marginalised women in “closed” communities. A fear of being branded “racist” or “prejudiced” may well account for health services’ reluctance to investigate cases of domestic abuse in Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Data on “honour abuse” is patchy at best as it is difficult to identify and measure within intensely segregated communities where it can be kept under wraps. However, the Leeds-based charity Karma Nirvana reported a stunning 81 per cent increase in cases related to “honour abuse” during 2020. It received 12,128 calls in the course of the year — a figure that dwarfs the 2,725 honour-abuse-related offences recorded by the police in the year ending March 2021. Meanwhile, the Asian Women’s Resource Centre recorded a 30 per cent increase in callers during lockdowns.

The tragic legitimisation of “honour abuse” within closed communities, combined with the identitarian sensitivities of state-funded public authorities, have enabled “horrific practices”. Female foeticide, forced marriage, rape, 24/7 monitoring and forbidding access to further education continue to go unreported. In such cases, references to “religious doctrines” and “cultural traditions” are opportunistically made to justify physical violence and emotional abuse — usually forms of male-on-female victimisation that all too often go undisclosed and unpunished. The legitimisation of such “norms” and “practices” means victims of domestic abuse can be unforthcoming when it comes to reporting their suffering. They are fearful of the stigma of being labelled a “traitor” that has “sold out” their family and community to the authorities. It is a truly unacceptable state of affairs in a supposedly advanced liberal democracy such as ours.

There is nothing honourable about abuse

There are a number of things that must be done to get a grip on the scourge of domestic abuse. NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) must show greater leadership in tackling this crisis. These institutions must hammer home that health professionals have a duty of care for any individual affected by domestic abuse — irrespective of racial background, ethnic origin or religious affiliation. This message needs to be embedded in all internal professional communications. Public institutions that have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in society, cannot afford to be paralysed by a toxic mixture of identity politics and political correctness.

The DHSC should also introduce statutory training for all health professionals — including GPs, nurses and health visitors — which is designed to bolster the identification of domestic abuse victims and their referral to the appropriate services. Part of this strategy should be encouraging more face-to-face consultations where indications of domestic abuse can be more readily detected than during virtual e-consultations. A multi-agency, joined-up approach in local communities — involving healthcare workers, relevant community groups and police forces — is critical in our efforts to tackle domestic abuse. 

Last, but not least, the UK Government should remove the phrase “honour abuse” from all official documentation such as police and medical records. The term is not recognised by domestic abuse victims and practitioners in the field, as it runs the risk of legitimising violent and mentally abusive practices that have no place in a civilised society. “Honour” in this context ultimately glorifies the actions of the perpetrator and sidelines the viewpoint of the victim. It should be consigned to the dustbin of history. Abuse is abuse, and there is nothing remotely “honourable” about its orchestration. 

There is no room for complacency — Britain must take action to combat domestic abuse, which continues to impact the mental and physical well-being of millions in our society. This includes marginalised harder-to-reach women (and men) who suffer forms of domestic abuse within closed communities, separated from the social mainstream. 

The failure to do so will have grave consequences for some of the most vulnerable and isolated members of our society.

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