“States shall ensure that women have equal rights with men in relation to marriage and as parents, as well as in respect of other aspects of family life.”

Article 16 instructs the government to ensure that women have equal rights with men in all aspects of family life, including in marriage and their role as mothers.

Whilst the family can be a site of protection and sanctuary from prejudice and discrimination for women, when this is violated by domestic violence their vulnerability and powerlessness are heightened.[1]  Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is recognised by the United Nations as a major obstacle to ending gender inequality and discrimination. It follows that protection from VAWG is central to women’s rights to equality in marriage and family life.[2]

In some English regions reporting domestic violence is two and a half times more likely to result in a child-protection referral than the arrest of the perpetrator. For example, in the West Midlands the child protection referral rate is 68%, whereas the arrest rate for DV offences is 27%.[3] [4] The number of children looked after in the care system, in England and Wales is at the highest level since 1985, the year before Article 16 was ratified by the UK Government. [5] In 2019, domestic violence is the most common factor for "children in need". [6]  

Feminist approaches to responding to VAWG have always been centred upon the protection, support and self-empowerment of women within the family unit. Currently, mothers who have experienced domestic abuse are being punished by a system that blames them for failing to keep their children safe.[7] Once women and children become ensnared in the social care system, their right to family life may be irrevocably severed.[8]

If children are removed from their mothers, the time constraint of 26 weeks to establish “permanency” introduced in the Children’s and Families Act (2014) is simply not enough time for a woman to recover from the trauma of domestic violence. The situation is compounded for women who have additional or multiple barriers such as mental health issues, learning disabilities, drug and alcohol addictions or cannot speak English.

The under-occupancy penalty, or bedroom tax introduced by the UK government as part of its 2013 welfare reforms, sees housing benefit reduce if a tenant has a spare bedroom. This means that once the children are removed, mothers are likely to lose their homes, and with it any chance of the children returning.  

Welfare and legal reform are not the only factors in this erosion of women’s rights; a misogynistic hegemony is informing political theory and policy.[9] “Family centred” or “whole family” approaches to tackling “domestic abuse” may sound like perfect common sense; however,  they are a rejection of long-established feminist practices based upon a critical understanding of how power operates within the family.  

A favoured response to the crisis in the care system emerging from the social work field, is a restorative approach, whereby the perpetrator is restored to the family as “a parent and a person”.[10] Associated with a restorative approach are cries for more understanding of men and what fuels their behaviours and more investment into perpetrator programmes.[11] VAWG is recognised as one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations and rooted in gendered social structures rather than individual acts.[12] Thus, the prevailing focus upon pathological explanations for domestic violence is obscuring the structural context for VAWG and ultimately preventing the transformation of the systems that are failing to protect women and children.[13]

In the last decade, whilst the demand for women’s services has risen as a result of austerity and welfare reform, we have witnessed an erosion of women only spaces that are the very foundation of women’s safety, support, self-empowerment and survival. Under these conditions the crisis in the child-care system can only escalate.

Protection from VAWG is central to women’s rights to equality in marriage and family life.[14] Ending VAWG requires responses that are holistic, responding to the needs of individual women and children whilst simultaneously addressing wider systems of inequality and discrimination against women. There is international recognition for the unique and catalyzing impact of women’s organisations on effective policy development to end VAWG and its prevention is shown to be driven by, and indeed require women’s organisations working in partnership with national and local Governments, communities, civil society groups and funders.[15] [16]


Dr Sue Robson

Sue is a feminist community development practitioner and activist with almost 35 years’ experience of working with women and girls. She has been an associate researcher with Women's Resource Centre since 2008. Most of Sue’s published work is around gender inequality and feminist community development practice. She was awarded a doctorate from Durham University School of Applied Social Science in 2016. Sue is a trustee of The Open Nest, a forward-thinking creative charity that promotes and protects the good health of adoptive and kinship care families and a member of the Kinship Carer Advisory Panel for Family Rights Group.


[1] Mullender, A., Hague, G,, Imam, U., Kelly, L., Malos, E., (2002), Children's Perspectives on Domestic Violence, Sage Publications, London.

[2] UN General Assembly (2006)

[3] https://www.ons.gov.uk/releases/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesyearendingmarch2017 

[4]https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesappendixtables - see Appendix Table 21 for DV child protection referrals

[5] https://www.frg.org.uk/involving-families/reforming-law-and-practice/care-crisis-review

[6] Local Government Association (2019) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50294046?fbclid=IwAR1laO19blK2_ksqjquDhE1Y4O4j3Fg4arfnE4-tXDVGe3tz9Nla7wL4Dqk

[7] Domestic abuse is now the most common reason given by callers contacting Family Rights Group's advice service, as to why social workers have been involved with their family.  There has been a stark rise in mothers in these circumstances, contacting us for advice - from 16% in 2007/8 to 68% of mothers contacting us in 2018/19.https://www.frg.org.uk/involving-families/our-projects/domestic-violence-project

[8] Preservation Versus Severance: Promoting Human Rights In Adoption Policy by The Open Nest Charity,  14 October 2019, The Principal Hotel York https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/preservation-versus-severance-promoting-human-rights-in-adoption-policy-tickets-63514311014

[9] Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, 16 November 2018

[10] Family Rights Group seminar on 3 October 2019 entitled domestic abuse and child welfare: reimagining the system.

[11] Family Rights Group seminar on 3 October 2019 entitled domestic abuse and child welfare: reimagining the system.

[12] UN General Assembly (2006)

[13] Waves of Action to the "Dead Calm" Responses to Violence Against Women in the New Millennium . Women in Welfare Education , 7(October), 17–32.  

[14] UN General Assembly (2006)

[15] Expert Group Meeting (EGM): prevention of violence against women and girls was convened as part of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women's multi-year programme of work for 2010-2014.

[16] Htun, M. and Laurel Weldon, S. (2012) ‘The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005,’ American Political Science Review Vol. 106, No. 3 (August 2012).