Over the past couple years at BIHR, I have delivered countless human rights sessions to people who access services, community groups and staff working in public authorities. It has become clear to me that feeling able to use human rights is not just about having knowledge about the law, but instead it is all about making the link with real life and then having the confidence to use human rights.

At BIHR we often, slightly cheese-ily, speak about the “lightbulb moment”. The moment where people make the connection between human rights and their lives or the work they do every day. This has been massively relevant in the work I have been doing this year with women survivors of domestic abuse.

 

What do human rights have to do with addressing domestic abuse and violence against women?

Today, 25 November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The UN describes violence against women and girls as “one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today”. According to the Office for National Statistics, in England and Wales:

  • Almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime
  • Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone
  • In the year ending March 2019, 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse.

These figures are from 2019, but as with so many other thing, this situation has been made even worse by the Covid pandemic. According to reports this month calls to the UK’s largest domestic abuse helpline are rising “week on week” as new figures reveal that almost 50 suspected killings may have occurred during the first lockdown.

Legally, the courts are acknowledging more and more that human rights are central to addressing domestic abuse and violence against women. In the case Opuz v Turkey the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that Turkey had violated the right to life (Article 2) as they had not acted despite clear evidence that a man had been violent towards his wife and her mother. After numerous instances of violence and making death threats towards the woman and her mother, the man killed his wife’s mother. In the case the Court also found that there was a violation of the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman and degrading way (Article 3) and the right not to be discriminated against (Article 14).

Closer to home, in 2018, two women, survivors of rape by John Worboys, won their legal fight to hold the police accountable for breaching their human rights because of failures to properly investigate reports of his crimes. The Supreme Court (the highest court in the UK) confirmed that the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, as set out in Article 3 the Human Rights Act, imposes a positive legal duty to investigate reported crimes perpetrated by private individuals. This means it is not enough to simply have the right processes and policies in place, failures in investigations can also breach the law. This case was ground-breaking as in other English law  it is actually very difficult to hold authorities such as the police to account. You can read more about these cases here.

 

Making the connection

In the Worboys case above, we can see that the Human Rights Act is extremely relevant in securing safety and addressing risk; but what seems to be little understood is the role our human rights can play in securing the support needed to build lives following violence.

All too often public services (and their front line staff) don’t know what their legal duties are to meet people's human rights, including to the right to choice, to be heard, to well-being, participation in the community, to be able to enjoy their home, to not be discriminated against. However, these rights are all vital to enable women to rebuild their lives following domestic abuse.

Additionally, in order for women to be able to use these rights they first must know what they are and how they work, then make the link with their own lives or situations and have the confidence to use them.

 

Our Work at BIHR

At the end of last year we received funding from Comic Relief’s Tech vs. Abuse fund. This funds the testing and building of “creative digital solutions, co-designed with users, to improve the safety of people affected by abuse, and improve service delivery.”

We have been working on the development of a new online tool which will support women to know their human rights and the duties of public services to respect and protect these, not only to keep them safe (which is vital) but to also help rebuild their lives.

The views and needs of women are central to this project. We are mapping and testing directly with women and VAWG groups that directly support women. Ensuring that the tool will provide women with all the information they need, in their pockets, for meetings with housing staff, education, social workers, police and others, enabling to have the power of legal language in what are often difficult interactions. In one of these mapping sessions one woman told me:

“Given my past experiences I have really struggled with standing up for myself and my rights, I haven’t had any confidence. But now I know that it is the law for me to have my rights upheld, I feel like I can use human rights when I want to challenge a decision or try to get a better solution.”

This is a sentiment that has been shared by the staff I have worked with recently who support women survivors of domestic abuse and violence:

"Often the clients we work with have a limited understanding of their own human rights and how this intersects with their experiences of domestic abuse and the legal obligations and responsibilities of professional agencies that are supporting them. Having a group of clients work with BIHR to develop the Human Rights Tool and participate in ‘mapping’ sessions, has provided a platform for victims/survivors to both learn about their rights, and also ensure that the information is accessible to others experiencing domestic abuse. The individuals that participated have felt incredibly empowered since gaining a much deeper understanding of their human rights, and how they are able to use these to advocate for themselves when engaging with professionals.

Often, it can appear that Human Rights are not considered when fundamental decisions regarding the client’s situation, are being made by other professional bodies such as social care and the police, and therefore it is imperative that Human Rights are considered by all professionals engaging with individuals experiencing domestic abuse. The sessions have been invaluable in allowing both the victims/survivors and case working teams to develop more confidence in using Human Rights in advocacy work to achieve positive outcomes."

- Anna, Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) Stalking Specialist, Changing Pathways 

Lightbulb Moments

We’ve all heard the saying “knowledge is power” a million times. This is of course true, having knowledge about our human rights is the essential starting point. But when we have past experiences which might impact our confidence or possibility to stand up for ourselves or we are in a situation where there is a perceived or real power imbalance (for example, when an individual is interacting with a public service) we need to have more than just the knowledge. We need to know how human rights work in practice and have the confidence to use them.

That is why the “lightbulb” moments I mentioned at the start are so important, because truly where do we, as ordinary people or as professionals supporting women or providing public services really learn about our human rights and what they mean for our life and work. We frequently ask this question at BIHR and our feedback is that overwhelming human rights knowledge and confidence just isn’t part of our general education or training and development in our jobs.

That is why it is so important to move human rights from the law books to everyday life, using real examples and a practical human rights based approach. This approach is central to our work at BIHR and central to the design of our new tool.

 

Our New Online Tool

The tool mentioned above is in its final stages of testing and designed. The tool will be launched in January 2021 and will be free to access for all. If you would like to be involved in the final stages of testing the tool or find out more about the launch you can fill in this quick survey here.