Cumberland Lodge: How much do we want to know about the connections between violence against women (VAW), being well, and being at ease in the world? This question was posed early to participants at Cumberland Lodge’s annual health conference, which focused on Violence Against Women: A Determinant of Health. The question lingered throughout the two-day conference, as participants sought to deepen their awareness of the structural limitations and cultural realities facing those who are being abused.
Using the 2014 Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, which focused on women’s health, as a starting point for discussions, this conference brought together public health directors, NHS representatives, policy makers, and professionals from law enforcement and academia.
Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school; a rape occurs in a school every day of term. Sexual harassment is the most prevalent form of abuse reported by British women. Statistics are shocking, but those at the conference were well aware of the extent to which violence against women occurs at all levels of British society.
The focus of the conference was not on the numbers, although they are useful to underscore the cross-sector challenges, but on the policy changes needed to reduce and prevent violence against women to lower such statistics, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. While most of the conference was consumed by navigating the interplay between the legal and the health sectors, the most moving sessions were led by women who shared their own experiences as victims and survivors, urging others not to ascribe labels to women experiencing trauma and offering ways to best support those who are at their most vulnerable.
Of course, intimate partner violence, rape by strangers or family members, and other forms of sexually-motivated violence happen to men as well as women, but it is women who are disproportionately affected by such crimes. Thus, it is women who are disproportionately neglected, or failed, by health services and law enforcement when the systems in place do not offer as comprehensive policies as needed.
Ultimately, the conference supported participants to better situate their role in the extensive network designed to help survivors and victims of abuse, and to clarify how their role interacts with other layers of the system. Throughout the conference, participants either shared observations they took for granted that shocked others, or expressed amazement at a different sector’s approach having never had the chance to explore the issue from outside their field.
As is often the case when a group of researchers, policy makers and health advocates against violence against women convenes, the conversation eventually turned to the pernicious role patriarchy plays within British, European, and international cultures and societies, and how subconscious gender attitudes continually stymie efforts to reduce violence against women.
Several speakers pointed out the progress the UK has made in terms of these challenges, but several also criticized current attempts aimed at preventing violence against women: ‘[w]e are almost nowhere in terms of prevention,’ one speaker said. ‘We are obsessed with risk management’.
More than once, the conversation returned to the same point: regardless of policies, strategies and funding allotted to preventing abuse, protecting societies’ most vulnerable members, or prosecuting offenders, and without acknowledging that the coercion of women by men remains embedded across all levels of societies, prevention cannot occur. Participants debated how to challenge societies’ foundational assumptions about relationships between men, women, and intimate partners of all genders, especially in regards to the health sector.
One specific health example was provided by a GP, who mapped the thoughts a doctor goes through during the average eight-minute consultation with a patient. A woman comes in with eczema and adds that she’s suffering from depression. Which would you treat first? If you’re already running ten minutes behind schedule, how much attention can you give to exploring the roots of this woman’s depression? How much trust can you build up with a patient? These are just some of the challenges facing GPs, who acknowledge the gaps in their training and the need to raise awareness for all medical professionals. But, if this conference showed anything, it is that violence against women cannot be neatly defined by professional fields.
From song lyrics and ads that seem to condone, or even promote, sexual harassment and abuse of women, to medical professionals who see intimate partner violence as beyond their remit of care, coercion of women by men is embedded across professional fields and communities.
As host, Cumberland Lodge provided not only a safe space for difficult conversations, but offered opportunities for the participants to see challenges they face on a daily basis from other perspectives. Alliances were formed: law enforcement professionals met medical professionals, academics spoke to council representatives, charity workers shared knowledge with doctoral students, and, in the final debrief, more than one person said they would be contacting someone they met at the conference to continue the cross-sector conversation.
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a proposal for a new law to increase prosecutions for domestic violence. May said she believes the new reforms ‘have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse’. These reforms and greater public attention on this issue are welcome but, as I’m sure many at the conference agree, legal reforms will never be enough.
The answer to ‘Do we really want to know?’ must be yes. A society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable individual. This conference welcomed debate and highlighted challenges to measures of prevention, protection and prosecution. However, violence against women is not only an issue to be debated at the crossroads of law and health. The next step is for participants to continue this cross-sector work and to continue challenging the cultural and social realities behind the statistics.
 ‘Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools’, The Women and Equalities Committee (2016)
 ‘Violence against women: an EU-wide survey’, Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union (2014)
 Rowena Mason, ‘Theresa May: I want to transform how we think about domestic violence’, Guardian, 17 February 2017