Achieving justice and improving support and protection for victims-survivors of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) is recognised globally as a violation of human rights which disproportionately damages the health and wellbeing of women.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that globally 30% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence, in their lifetime.

In England and Wales, domestic abuse was committed against 1.6 million women and 786,000 men during the year ending March 2019, almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime and two women a week are killed by a current or former partner.

Narrowing the 'justice gap'

The term 'justice gap' is often used to refer to the dropping out of cases within the criminal justice system. However, research led by Professor Marianne Hester from the School for Policy Studies, also uncovered a wider gap in the understanding of what justice means.

Evidence published in over 20 papers, and including a rich dataset of qualitative survivor interviews, gave voice to over 1,600 victims-survivors to identify how justice was understood, sought and experienced, and consider the intersectionality of different forms of inequality and types of GBV (sexual and domestic violence, forced marriage and so-called honour based violence).

Important data (Lilley-Walker et al. 2019) revealed inequalities in the criminal justice response, including:

  • highlighting age and gender as significant factors in the experience of sexual violence and the criminal justice system
  • confirming that some of the most vulnerable victims-survivors, especially those with poor mental health, are still not achieving criminal justice
  • showing underrepresentation of BME and LGBTQ+ groups, implying these groups are not seeking a criminal justice response in the same way as 'white' heterosexual victims-survivors

This evidence is informing UK government policy and practitioner support.

Informing understanding of justice

The project revealed that for victims-survivors, 'justice' has a much wider meaning beyond that of the criminal justice system, and involves accountability of perpetrators and communities.

Working with My Sister's Place and Women's Aid, the research team used the findings to inform the way advisors talk about justice with survivors/clients.

"[This research] helped us to understand that justice is about recognition, it's about accountability and empowerment and that's been really critical in shaping our response to domestic abuse." – Women's Aid Federation of England

The collaboration went on to develop the 'justice toolkit', which enables frontline specialist services to identify and measure the wider forms of justice, such as perpetrator accountability and victim empowerment, that they create with victims-survivors.

As of September 2020, the toolkit is being used by 13 Women's Aid members, two sister national networks and the Women's Aid federations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Promoting specialist support in court

The research also highlighted the importance of empowerment through advocacy of victims-survivors.

The needs of victims-survivors vary at different stages of the criminal justice system, and specialist support services play a crucial role (Hester and Lilley, 2018). Furthermore, Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs), were shown to increase the chance of conviction and therefore narrow the 'justice gap' (Lilley-Walker et al. 2019).

This evidence has informed recommendations to police forces in England...

"Where a witness summons is issued for the complainant, police and [Crown Prosecution Service] should encourage/arrange for IDVA or specialist adviser support." – Northumbria Policy and Crime Commissioner

...and is used by Women's Aid in its nationally recognised IDVA qualification training.

"[The research was] particularly useful in discussing with training participants the difference that advocacy skills can make, and the relevance of a sense of justice to survivors' empowerment and moving on." – Head of Research and Evaluation, Women's Aid

Impact on national policy – underpinned new UK family court guidance to protect children from domestic abuse

The research has led to changes in legal guidance which protects the wellbeing of children in domestic abuse cases. Evidence submitted to a review of Practice Direction 12J, combined with Women's Aid evidence led to revisions in procedure which removed the presumption to require 'contact at all costs' with both parents, without proper evaluation of the risk to children's safety in domestic abuse cases. This guidance represents a major shift for the courts, who hold a 'pro-contact' culture – a deeply held commitment to maintaining contact between a child and both parents... I have lost count of the numbers of women who have told us about the harrowing experience of having to facilitate contact with their abuser, which they know is unsafe and which has long term, traumatic impacts on their children" (Campaigns and Policy Manager, Women's Aid).

Leveraged over £7.2 million in funding to expand Drive – a GBV-prevention programme in the UK

Hester et al's evaluation of the Drive project found a sustained reduction in abuse by high-harm perpetrators (by up to 88%) and increased safety of victims-survivors for users of this intervention, and has led directly to considerable financial investment in Drive. The Director of Drive comments: "Findings from [Hester et al's] evaluation demonstrate the positive impact that the Drive intervention is having on the lives of victim-survivors of domestic abuse and on perpetrators of domestic abuse. Without independent evidence documenting this impact, we would not have secured the level of investment needed to continue delivering and having this impact at greater scale."

The University of Bristol Centre for Gender and Violence Research is internationally recognised for its global influence on tackling GBV, including domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and sexual exploitation, as well as its work on criminal and civil justice, social harms and trauma, disruption to perpetrators and empowerment of victims.

"I am very proud of the way we've continued really focusing on what is needed in order to make women's lives better." – Professor Marianne Hester, Chair in Gender, Violence and International Policy

Economic and Social Research Council Celebrating Impact Prize

In 2020, the University's application based on the work of Marianne Hester was shortlisted as a finalist to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize. It described how the research led by her has helped build understanding of what justice means to survivors of gender-based violence, improving advocacy, training and support by services such as Women's Aid. Whilst the application did not win, being shortlisted as a finalist was a significant achievement and a well-deserved reflection on the real change this research has made. There is also a short video about the impact of Marianne's work.

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