The Severity of Domestic Abuse

The Severity of Domestic Abuse

Author: Aardhra Antony Thekkekkara
3rd year, Christ University.
This article argues that domestic violence should not be regarded as simply an assault which takes place in the home. Rather, domestic violence has some special wrongs which are not present in an assault in the home. This paper highlights four such wrongs. First, that domestic abuse commonly involves coercive control. Second, that domestic abuse needs to be seen as a serious abuse of trust. Third, that it causes serious harms to children present in the home where the abuse takes place. Fourth, that it contributes to, and reflects the inequalities faced by women. Once these harms are appreciated, it is clear that combating domestic abuse should be a top priority for any government.

Defining Domestic Violence
 As per the World Health Organisation (‘WHO ’): “Worldwide, almost one-third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.[1]Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.” In the South-East Asian region, 37.7% of women report having been the victim of domestic abuse. A recent major review of studies into domestic abuse in India found that 41% of women reported experiencing domestic violence during their lifetime, and 30% reported experiencing the same in the past year. The WHO uses the term “intimate partner violence” rather than domestic abuse. It defines the term as: “Behaviour by an intimate partner that causes physical, sexual, or psychological harm, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, andcontrolling behaviours. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:
 ● psychological ● physical ● sexual ● financial ● emotional.
 Controlling behaviour
 Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.[2]
 Coercive behaviour
 Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
Domestic Abuse as ‘Coercive Control’
Traditionally, criminal lawyers define crimes in terms of the injury done to the body. Does the defendant’s act cause a cut or a bruise? Is it just an unwanted touching? Yet, an assessment of the severity of the harm by focusing on the extent of bodily impact at the moment in time is a narrow construction of harm. This way of understanding crimes does not capture the wider context of the relationship between the parties, and the broader social circumstances within which the act is done. In this way, the law can m
iss important elements of the wrong. A good example is the English case of R. v. Dhaliwal.  The husband in this case continually undermined and demeaned his wife for a long period of time, before she finally committed suicide. Each act looked at separately might have been regarded as no more than an unpleasant remark, a cruel insult at worst. The English Court of Appeal was unable to find an offence committed by him. However, once the final act of suicide is seen in the broader context of prolonged and regular subjection to belittling remarks, the impact of which were such that she was reduced to committing suicide, it is difficult to miss the severity of the alleged behavior.[3]This is why it is so important to appreciate that domestic abuse is best understood not as simply a series of violent or abusive acts, but rather as a program of “coercive control” (to use Evan Stake’s phrase), or “patriarchal terrorism”, or “intimate terrorism” (to use Michael Johnson’s phrase). Michael Johnson distinguishes intimate terrorism from what he calls ‘situational couple violence’or ‘mutual violence’. Patriarchal terrorism is, “violence enacted in the service of taking general control over one’s partner.” By contrast, in situational couple violence or mutual violence, the violence exists, but not with an attempt to control the relationship.[4]Rather, it is an incident of violence that arises in a moment of conflict in an intimate relationship, which is not generally marked with inequality. It involves a lashing out in self-defense, anger, or frustration, rather than an attempt to exercise control.
Domestic Abuse as a Breach of Trust
The second particular wrong of domestic abuse which I wish to highlight is that it involves a grave breach of trust. Our intimate relationships are keys to our identities.Without those close to us to love us,and to be loved by us, our lives would have little meaning. It is through our caring and loving relationships that we flourish. John Eekelaar has argued that trust is at the heart of intimacy, and that it enables love and autonomy to develop.[5] It is in being able to be completely honest and vulnerable with a partner that relationships can deepen, an understanding of self can grow, and lives can flourish. But, all of that requires a deep sense of trust. In a case of domestic abuse, the access gained in the relationship to private information, bodies, and spaces is misused against the victim. It is a profound breach of trust. I want to explore three interconnected aspects of that wrong. First, in intimate relationships we share “thick interpersonal trust”. The ways in which we expose both physical, emotional, and geographical places is very different in intimate relationships than between, say, work colleagues. We are only willing to be that open because we trust those we love to take care of us, and not misuse the information or access that they gain. Yet, in domestic abuse,the privileged access is used against the victim. Notably, the law seems more ready to protect confidential information disclosed in a professional relationship, than to control the misuse of information gained in a personal relationship to exercise power or control over the other party. Second, the breach of trust causes a particular harm to the self. Since intimate relationships are central to our identity and sense of self, when they are used to send negative messages about us, or degrade our sense of self, the harm is uniquely personal.
Domestic Violence and Children
 A third particular wrong in domestic abuse is that of harm tochildren, which has been amply evidenced. It is not surprising that children who witness domestic abuse suffer.[6]However, the evidence shows that there are harmful effects even where the child has not witnessed the violence, but is living in the same household as the abuse. Children raised in families characterised by domestic violence are 30-60% more likely to suffer child abuse themselves. The impact on children includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems, leading to depression, anxiety, truancy, and low educational achievement. It also can lead to interpersonal problems, and poor social skills. 10% of children who had witnessed domestic violence, witnessed their mother being sexually assaulted. The law generally recognizes that crimes against children involve a greater wrong than crimes against others. It recognizes the particular obligation that adults, particularly those in a parental role, owe to children. It also recognizes that children often lack the physical, emotional, and social capabilities to respond to harmful incidents. All of these concerns emphasize the particular wrongfulness of domestic violence.   < /o:p>
Domestic Violence and Patriarchy
The fourth and final point is that domestic violence helps promote patriarchy. Domestic violence reinforces and relies upon power exercised by men over women in society. As the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men puts it: “Violence against women is a question of power, of the need to dominate and control. This in turn is rooted in the organization of society, itself based on inequality between the sexes. The meaning of this violence is clear: it is an attempt to maintain the unequal relationship between men and women and to perpetuate the subordination of women. Domestic violence also reinforces the practical barriers that exist to restrict women’s access to the labour market, and reinforces traditional roles for women. Evan Stark reports how domestic abuse intensifies when women seek to gain independence by, for example, finding employment. More broadly, domestic abuse is often used to deny access to an autonomous life, by restricting movement, economic independence, and association with friends.
 This article has sought to argue that domestic abuse should not be simply understood as a violent act in a private setting. This understanding fails to appreciate the relational, personal, and social impacts of domestic abuse. When this is taken into account, the severity of domestic abuse can be revealed. This article has sought to highlight four particular wrongs contained in domestic abuse. First, that it reflects an attempt to control all aspects of the victim’s life through coercive control. Second, domestic abuse is a serious breach of trust that wrongs the very essence of the person. Third, domestic abuse causes serious wrongs to children, the most vulnerable and precious resource of any society. Finally, domestic abuse reflects and reinforces negative attitudes and forces that work against the interests of women. Any society committed to combatting gender inequality must make combatting domestic abuse a priority.                                          


[1]Kelly, L. and Westmorland, N., 2016. Naming and defining ‘domestic violence’: Lessons from research with violent men. Feminist review112(1), pp.113-127.
[2] Kantor, G.K. and Little, L., 2003. Defining the boundaries of child neglect: When does domestic violence equate with parental failure to protect?. Journal of interpersonal violence18(4), pp.338-355.
[3] Williamson, E., 2010. Living in the world of the domestic violence perpetrator: Negotiating the unreality of coercive control. Violence Against Women16(12), pp.1412-1423.
[4] Candela, K., 2016. Protecting the invisible victim: Incorporating coercive control in domestic violence statutes. Family court review54(1), pp.112-125.

[5] Titus, K., 1996. When physicians ask, women tell about domestic abuse and violence. JAMA275(24), pp.1863-1865.
[6] Edleson, J.L., 1999. Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of interpersonal Violence14(8), pp.839-870.

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