Battered Wives

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16 July 1973.

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Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 12:00, 16 July 1973

I want to draw the attention of the House to a subject cocooned in prejudice and buried in fear—the problem of wives who are victims of domestic violence.

Thousands of men in this country are subjecting their wives to physical brutality. Some are psychopaths, some are alcoholics, and some are sadists. All of them must be stopped from indulging in gratuitous violence. If necessary, they must be given psychiatric treatment, but the first priority must be to protect their wives. Yet many women allege that they are refused protection by the police and neglected by the social services. The general experience of these women is that no one wants to know.

The public indifference to this problem is remarkable—perhaps because domestic brutality is often confused with normal domestic dispute. Too many men flippantly attribute it to "female provocation" or even "a perk of marriage". In fact the torment and misery of these wives is just another, but more savage, aspect of sex discrimination.

The testimony I have received from the women themselves and their letters prove to me that thuggery and mugging are not confined to the highway. They exist in the home, extorting fear, submission and subservience from women who are deprived of their independence. In some cases they are almost deprived of their identity.

Let me quote one example of a woman living in Wales: I have been married for nearly 18 years to a husband who has subjected me to countless beatings in which I have sustained injuries ranging from black eyes', cuts on my face multiple bruises on my legs, arms and body to strangulation marks on my neck. I have been punched with closed fists—blow after blow being rained on my head; I have been kicked in the head, the ribs and the abdomen; I have been flung across the room like a rag-doll; I have been beaten lying on the floor". I hope that typical letter gives the House a clearer picture of the violence practised in British homes today. But for one woman victim in the Midlands there can be no clear picture of anything, for she is blind.

According to one of my honourable—-and most trusted—Friends, she lost her sight five years ago, when she was 32, after a haemorrhage of the retina. She is constantly beaten up by her husband—who is an executive class civil servant. Could anything be more despicable—or cowardly—than that?

Clearly, brutal husbands are not confined to the working class or families living in poverty. They exist, and give full reign to their violence, at many levels of society. Sometimes their veneer of respectability cloaks shattering cruelty.

In a letter to me, the ex-wife of a top executive in Berkshire has spelt out her stark experience: In the summers I couldn't swim or wear summer dresses because I was so covered with bruises. When I was eight months pregnant with twins I was knocked down and kicked repeatedly in the stomach and kidneys; the babies were born prematurely and although they had both been apparently healthy inside me up to the time of my 'accident' one of them (who had stopped moving inside me after the ' accident ') was born dead. So much for the myth of normal domestic disputes confined to inadequate homes. Imagine the public outcry if a thug attacked a woman like that in the streets. Yet it is condoned in a home because too many people believe that a marriage licence is a licence for domestic violence.

These are by no means isolated cases. Let me read an extract from the letter of a social worker in Solihull: I am the social worker at a school for educationally subnormal children, a good number of whom are brain damaged. I have been amazed—no longer surprised—at the number who have been beaten during their pregnancy". So the problem assumes larger proportions than anyone suspected.

Already the Chiswick Aid Centre has received hundreds of applications from women in distress all over the country. The centre was established by Mrs. Erin Pizzey, a compassionate and remarkable woman who first identified the problem, then promptly did something about it.

Her pioneering work deserves great tribute, especially as it has been conducted in face of indifference and sometimes hostility. But it must be supplemented in other parts of the country.

Already there are signs of significant and influential support. The Bishop of Aston, in Birmingham, has written to me about a new project for the Midlands. The Trent Trust, in Stoke-on-Trent, is also looking for accommodation for battered wives.

The demand is great but, as there are no official statistics available, I have made my own inquiries. In Stoke-on-Trent, a city of 250,000 people, 80 wives who had endured habitual cruelty asked the Social Services Department for help in the past year. In the county of Staffordshire, with a total population of just over one million, 320 assaulted wives complained to the police. Assuming these areas are typical, both of them give an approximate figure for the country as a whole of 16,000.

Some more remarkable figures have been given to me this afternoon by the Citizens Advice Bureau. In Manchester, with a population of 543,000, in the past six months 149 battered and beaten wives have asked the bureau for help. This is the equivalent of an annual rate of about 27,000 per 50 million of the population. Ashton-under-Lyne, with a population of 45,000, has had 37 cases in the past six months, equivalent to about 75,000 cases annually per 50 million population. In Stockport the rate is equivalent to 46,000 per 50 million people. In Salford the rate is 34,000, in Oldham it is 38,000 and in Prestwich it is 25,000. No one can now pretend that this is a minor problem.

If so many women in one year are so distressed that they seek help from police and social service departments, how vast is Britain's reservoir of needless cruelty and suffering?

The existence of a problem of this size and nature is a badge of shame reflecting on our society, on our police who allow it, on our lawyers who are often so inadequate, on our legal system which is cumbersome, on our social services, which ignore it. All of them bear a responsibility that has not so far been fully accepted.

Over half the letters I have received from battered wives complain of failure by the police to take action: Even when I fled to a police station with my face covered with blood all they did was write a report down in a book". A woman in Devon who had appealed to the police said: Never shall I ask help of the police, they make one feel degraded and humiliated". Inevitably, many women assume that nothing can be done because the phrase "domestic dispute" is parroted as an incantation for inaction. But much can be achieved, because even within the existing law the police and lawyers can significantly reduce violence. Every policeman, every solicitor and every housewife should be made aware of the Home Office Parliamentary Answer to me in June: The law does not discriminate between assaults by a husband on his wife and other assaults. Any assault constitutes a criminal offence". But a comprehensive plan to transform a serious situation must include action over a wide range. In the all too short time at my disposal I propose the following 15-point plan: the Home Secretary should write to every chief constable making four requests.

First, a criminal assault on a wife must be treated exactly the same as a criminal assault on a Member of Parliament, a police officer or a member of the Royal Family.

Secondly, every policeman should be informed that there is no law preventing him from interfering in domestic disputes where violence is use.

Thirdly, the police should prosecute in cases of criminal assault in the home rather than leave action to the woman.

Fourthly, there should be a guarantee of police protection to all wives who need it, and to ensure that in cases of criminal proceedings for violence the man is kept in custody until trial.

The Attorney-General should, first, request the Law Society officers to read the recent report by the Chiswick Aid Centre lawyers and send it to every solicitor, every citizen's advice bureau and every social service department, and to other appropriate organisations.

Secondly, he should request the Law Society to take steps to increase the number of solicitors familiar with this type of work and to be willing to undertake it.

Thirdly, he should ask the Law Society to provide immediate legal aid for all wives taking action against their husbands for criminal assault, even if they are not at that time taking steps for separation or divorce.

Fourthly, he should encourage the courts to request psychiatric evidence in all cases of severe and continuous assault.

The Secretary of State for Social Services should, first, take urgent action within the next three months to set up a network of acceptable sanctuaries for assaulted women.

Secondly, he should ensure that all women who leave their husbands because of violence receive their benefits immediately.

Thirdly, he should replace his general invitation for information with specific requests to representative organisations of doctors, solicitors, social workers, citizens' advice bureaux, probation officers and other interested bodies.

The Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment should, first, encourage local councils to give a wife temporary tenancy if she has evidence of brutality.

Secondly, he should urge that the permanent tenancy be given to whoever is given custody of the children after a breakdown of marriage.

Thirdly, he should seek legislation to give all wives equal rights in the matrimonial home.

Finally, the Prime Minister should ensure that all interested Government Departments collect relevant statistics and consider short- and long-term solutions to this problem.

If this plan is adopted we can lift the burden of brutality from the shoulders of thousands of women whose lives have been blighted.