Changes in the law to protect teenage victims of domestic abuse – will it change lives?

My name is Tracy Guest, and I am the Chief Executive of the Sheffield YWCA.

Sheffield YWCA is an independent member of the YWCA of Great Britain, providing accommodation and support services to vulnerable young women and families in South Yorkshire, England.

As Chief Executive of Sheffield YWCA, I represent the organisation at a strategic level, contributing to local and national debates on housing issues, gender, young people, and teenage pregnancy. I also play an active role within the wider voluntary sector, acting as a representative on teenage pregnancy partnership boards and local authority governance structures. I am also a trustee on the board of the YWCA of Great Britain, and have represented GB at a number of high profile events in the UK e.g. the “We Will Speak Out Coalition of women’s organisations” and the Sophia forum round table event on HIV / Aids held at the House Of Lords.

Tracy Guest

Changes in the law to protect teenage victims of domestic abuse – will it change lives?

In 2011, I attended the world council and IWS in Zurich. I was deeply moved by the resilliance of the women who spoke and shared their stories. Whilst the experiences of the GB delegation were very different in relation to HIV / Aids and the availability of sexual and reproductive health care, what resonated with me was our shared experiences of gender based violence. The stories of women globally in relation to domestic abuse were so similar to those of the young women with whom I work and some of my own friends and family, that I determined that I would take the messages back to the UK and become more actively involved in the dialogue around this subject.

When I returned from Zurich, I  undertook a study of the young women who use our services in Sheffield, and found that 40% of the young women in our accommodation had experienced serious domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. A further 30% identified some form of domestic abuse in their relationships.  In other words, 70% of Sheffield YWCA service users had been subjected to domestic abuse of one form or another in their lives.

This is particularly distressing when you consider that the average age of a Sheffield YWCA client is just 17 years of age.

The experience of young women

As a worker in the field for over 23 years, it is still shocking to me to know that this is the experience of the young women with whom I work. It is even more shocking to realise that these figures broadly reflect the lives of teenage girls in UK society as a whole.

For example, research from 2009 conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University surveyed teenagers about their experiences of intimate partner violence with frightening results. 75% of girls surveyed reported emotional abuse, 33% of girls had suffered sexual abuse including rape, and 25% reported physical abuse from their boyfriends.

Government action

You can imagine my joy then, when on the 19th September 2012, UK government ministers announced that the official definition of domestic violence would be changed  to ensure that thousands of teenage victims who are abused whilst in a relationship will get the help and support they need. The law now recognises that teenagers experience domestic abuse in partner relationships that is separate from child abuse.

This will come as no surprise to those of us who work every day with young women who have suffered at the hands of family members and partners who are supposed to care for them and keep them safe. A Home Office impact assessment has estimated that as many as 5,280 high-risk teenage girls could now be referred to multi-agency panels involving the police, domestic violence advisers, children’s services, health and housing professionals, as a result of the move to improve their safety.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said the true face of domestic violence was much more complex and more widespread than people often realise, and that “Suffering at the hands of people who are meant to care for you is horrific at any age.  But it can be especially damaging for young people – the scars can last for a lifetime.”

Clegg added that the message was “even if you are young, even if what you experience isn’t one single act of violence, you do not have to put up with abuse. There is help out there for you”…… “And to the perpetrators the message is equally simple: what you’re doing is wrong and won’t be tolerated”


But will the changes in legislation translate to real changes in the experiences of women and girls suffering domestic abuse?

The impact of austerity

The change in legislation goes some way to recognising the problem I accept, but I fear it will have little impact on those silent victims who are isolated, unsupported and alone in a climate where women and girls find the very services set up to assist them are being closed, and provision eroded as councils are forced to make savings in a time of austerity and financial crisis.

The reality for women and girls is that the domestic violence sector has already been cut by around 31%, and those cuts are going to get worse. Cuts to the Supporting People grant to Councils in England and Wales from Central Government could jeopardise refuge provision when already 230 women are turned away from refuges every day because there simply aren’t enough places to protect women from a crime that affects a quarter of us in our lifetimes.

Services for teenage parents and other vulnerable women’s groups are being reduced as squeezed council’s divert funds to plug gaps in statutory provision.

It is meaningless for the government to say that they care about the domestic abuse suffered by teenage girls when they are relentlessly dismantling the very systems that will protect them from the impact of violence.

In 2010, Theresa May addressed the Women’s Aid conference to say that the Coalition would bring actions, not words to the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women and girls, but I am yet to be convinced that this is anything more than rhetoric.

Vulnerable young people pay the price

As the country is forced to repay its debts and climb out of a financial crisis caused by greed and complacency, it seems to me that it is the vulnerable who are paying the price, and that legislative changes alone cannot change those lives blighted by violence when the services that they need are being eroded.

I will end this piece with a poem dedicated to the women and girls who have suffered at the hands of the people who were supposed to love and cherish them, and to those who have chosen not just to survive, but to live, despite the challenges.

 20 to 3

It was 20 to 3 when the world changed for me

When my lover gave me a gift

It was 20 to 3, who knew I would be

So cruelly set adrift

The gift came quickly

The gift came swiftly

He said it was a gift of love

It took my face, it took my eyes

A judgment from above

The gift felt warm upon my face

He said it was what I deserved

For being so vain, so proud so beautiful

My Innocence would be preserved

Now no-one looks upon my face

No strangers turn to admire

Its 20 to 3 and no-one can see

The beauty taken by fire

But other gifts were given to me

My heart, my strength, my voice

Its past 20 to 3 and I want you to see

My life, my hope, my choice!