I saw the anti-domestic violence campaign film CUT for the first time last night. In ways that will be familiar to many women across the country, Keira Knightley is forced to the ground and kicked repeatedly in the stomach as she lies, fetal, trying to protect herself from a senseless barrage of violence.
The two-minute film ends by informing viewers that two women a week are killed by partners and ex-partners -- the men who profess to love them. It also asks for small donations to help the fight against what is an appalling and unforgivable crime.
Whilst CUT really conveys the terrifying nature of domestic violence, I wonder if more could be done show the more ‘ordinariness’ of abusive relationships.
Having previously worked with women experiencing domestic violence, I’d say one of the biggest obstacles to addressing the problem is that in many households it's simply not recognised. The repeated blows to the stomach experienced by Knightley in the film, and the very visible black eyes worn by Fern Britton and Anna Friel for photographer Ian Rankin’s 2007 campaign, are obvious ramifications of physical abuse. Of course, this abhorrent treatment of many women, and yes, some men (before the inevitable “what about the men?” retorts begin), should be highlighted and these have been very powerful ways of doing so.
I am concerned though, that showing only these extremes will lead other women to dismiss their daily walk on eggshells as not really domestic violence.
Defined by Women’s Aid, “domestic violence is physical, sexual, psychological or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour”. So it's not always physical. Indeed for many women when it does become physical, it can be easier to deal with; easier to define, to prove and to get help with.
It is far more difficult for women whose partners are systematically undermining their mental health. This can be done in a number of ways: by shifting random objects round the house and then denying they’ve moved; by insisting that other women wouldn’t wear those clothes, in fact they probably wouldn’t go out at all; by secretly filming their partner when their asleep or by surreptitiously drugging them and then telling friends and family they have an alcohol problem which is why they are slurring their words, keep falling asleep and shouldn’t be looking after their children.
These types of abuse are a lot more hidden: if a woman is beginning to think she’s going mad, why would she tell anyone else?
Children are also witnessing this long-term systematic, yet sometimes very subtle torture. It sounds dramatic, and without ignoring that most households are happy ones, it is important to recognise the severity of the situation in some of the ones that are not.
On this morning's Today programme social worker Joanna Nicholas pointed out that children are seeing repeated aggression within the home and living in increasingly violent environments outside it. She made these comments as part of a discussion about the increasingly violent nature of today's children. Exposure to violence, even before birth can lead to physical changes in the brains and a lack of empathy with other children.
In order to tackle child violence, we must tackle domestic violence. In order to tackle domestic violence we must start to look at the central power dynamics involved. One person can repeatedly control another’s actions without using violence- through coercion, emotional blackmail and through withholding money for example.
A wider acknowledgment of this is needed before trying to prevent it and although visually less dramatic the subtler psychological and controlling side of domestic abuse needs to be aired.