PSNI campaigns: aiming too low?

“Domestic abuse can only stop when you report it.” Stemming from a concern regarding the large number of unreported instances of domestic abuse, this is the name of the PSNI’s current (relaunched in 2010) campaign against domestic abuse, the aim of which is to encourage victims to come forward and help bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice.

Whilst the PSNI have seen a decrease in instances of domestic abuse and continue to work strongly against the problem in Northern Ireland, the language of the campaign is greatly concerning. In similar terms to the current Be Smart Anti Rape campaign, it appears to suggest that the power to stop a heinous crime is in the hands of a victim: a notion which seems absurd to any rational person.

The rape campaign with which many have taken issue places the responsibility in the hands of ‘potential victims’ – don’t drink too much, make yourself understood, take rape seriously as it “can stay with you for life” (is rape now a choice?) and “take care”. Whilst providing the public with constructive advice regarding their safety is, if course, necessary and helpful, it is far too little to aim for a decrease in crime by placing the responsibility for its occurrence in the hands of the victim.

Again, with the domestic abuse campaign, the PSNI strikes a victim-blaming chime: if you report it, if more of you (victims) reported domestic abuse, it would stop. It is right to encourage people to report crimes, but the suggestion that this would stop the crime not only generalises the crime to the extent of alienating victims of already-occurred instances of abuse, it suggests to victims and potential victims that it is their fault for being abused.

In both of these campaigns, the (hopefully unintentional) message is that it is the responsibility of victims to NOT be abused or raped; and that it is their fault if the are. This is incredibly harmful to victims themselves who are shamed and alientaed (and provides one explanation for the very low rate of reporting the crimes) but is also not dealing with the source of the problem: there would be no rape without rapists, and “domestic abuse can only stop…when abusers stop abusing.” Reporting domestic abuse will NOT stop domestic abuse from occurring; taking care will NOT stop rape from happening.

As a side note, it is interesting to note the language used regarding the people who abuse  others: “those responsible”, but not “criminals”, not “perpetrators”. This is not simple responsibility for an action, it is criminal behaviour worthy of being punished – it must be spoken of as such. It is not enough, especially when the desire is to see more crimes of abuse be brought to justice, to blur over the picture. Call it like it is. Perhaps a serious and harder public treatment of criminals would encourage victims to report the crimes as it reinforces the position of, and thus trust in, the judiciary system.

The alternative, then? It is simply not good enough to blame victims for crimes they suffer the painful consequences of. We need to aim higher. The criminals perpetrating the crimes must be addressed both in prevention campaigns (for indeed, those are not an excuse for preemptive victim-blaming) and in more general trouble-shooting. Not only because this is how we will see the crimes decrease, or because it is a more noble cause, or a higher aim – we do the victims a disservice and do not give them the justice they deserve if we ignore the people who harm them. It is more difficult, yes, but we must source the crime accurately; with the criminal. And notice the “we”: in discussing the very topics of responsibility and blame, let us acknowledge that this is not solely the responsibility of the PSNI and those who work on their campaigns. Schools, churches, universities, companies, social groups – human beings are responsible to instil a culture of respect of human value and intolerance of crimes that abuse this value. We cannot give up our relentlessness or zeal in pursuing justice. We must aim higher than treating the victims and symptoms of crimes. For without rapists, rape would not be. Without abusers, domestic abuse would not be.

Domestic abuse 24/7 helpline in NI: 0800 917 1414

UK National Rape Crisis Helpline, open every day of the year 12-2.30 & 7-9.30:  0808 802 9999

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