Making the Grade? Not yet...

Janet Veitch says that with a score of 2 out of 10, the Government needs to start taking real action

For the last three weeks the New Statesman has been highlighting the funding crisis facing the Rape Crisis sector. As an isolated problem it would be serious enough but, unfortunately, it serves to highlight problems for violence against women more broadly.

A staggering three million women face sexual or domestic violence, forced marriage, trafficking or other violence every year in the UK and many more have experienced abuse in the past or as a child. So even if we haven’t directly experienced violence ourselves, we all know someone – a friend, family member or work colleague – who has. Statistically, the majority of this violence is perpetrated by men against women, which is why it is a gender issue.

The impact of violence is deeply damaging, ranging from cuts and bruises to serious injury or death in the most extreme cases. It causes long-term emotional and psychological harm. Sexual violence can also lead to forced pregnancy and STDs. The direct cost to the economy of domestic violence, just one form of violence, each year in England and Wales is £6 billion. So as a society we are paying a very high price. Violence is also a major driver of women’s inequality.

This is why such a diverse group including Amnesty, Rape Crisis, the TUC, Women’s Aid and the Women’s Institute have come together under the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition. Every year we assess how Government Departments are addressing violence against women and publish the results in our Making the Grade? reports. Today, we are publishing our findings for 2007. Whilst some departments score highly, most notably the Crown Prosecution Service, others continue to fail to take this issue seriously.

The Government’s overall score this year is a very disappointing 2 out of 10, the same as last year. The report welcomes initiatives such as Specialist Domestic Violence Courts and Sexual Assault Referral Centres but shows that the overall approach is patchy and mostly focused on the criminal justice system.

This is short-sighted. As the New Statesman Rape Crisis campaign has highlighted, the vast majority of victims (around 80%) do not report to the police, so their case never enters the criminal justice system. Rape Crisis Centres, domestic violence refuges and other specialist services offer routes out of violence and support for women through the justice system that enable them to move on with their lives. And yet, there is a postcode lottery in the provision of these life-saving services. It is astonishing that a third of local authorities across the UK don’t have such services at all. Furthermore, fewer than one in ten have specialist services for ethnic minority women (addressing issues like forced marriage) and where they do exist they are threatened with significant funding cuts or even closure (as in the case of Southall Black Sisters). More detail on this issue can be found in Map of Gaps, our joint report with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Indeed the Commission has issued stark warnings to the worst performing local authorities that it will take legal action under the Gender Equality Duty if they don’t improve.

But the funding crisis is not the only problem. Conviction rates for all forms of violence against women are still very low, so perpetrators go unpunished. Furthermore, there is no plan of action to actually prevent violence from happening. Where are the public campaigns to challenge attitudes that tolerate violence? Why is there no requirement on schools to address issues like healthy relationships or consent to sex when surveys consistently show unhealthy attitudes justifying and condoning violence amongst young men in particular?

The good initiatives are being undermined by the lack of a strategic approach which is why EVAW members are united in calling for a cross-departmental strategy to address violence against women. This would make the connections between different forms of violence and ensure that all Government departments play their part. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are now advocating a strategic approach. In Scotland, the Government has been developing just such an approach for some time.

Some Whitehall Departments are leading the way. The CPS consistently scores highest in Making the Grade? because it is developing a Violence Against Women Strategy (to be published shortly).

As a signatory to the UN Beijing Platform for Action, the UK is required to implement national action plans to work towards ending violence against women. This summer in New York, Government Ministers will be reporting on progress on tackling discrimination against women to the UN. This must be the year it can report real action on these commitments and send the message to women that violence against women is a priority.

Making the Grade? 2007 is being launched at 6:30pm tonight in Westminster. Download a copy of the report

Janet Veitch is Vice Chair of the End Violence against Women Campaign (EVAW), which lobbies for a strategic approach by government to eliminating violence. She has worked both inside and outside government on economic and social policy.
Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.