Amongst several sombre milestones this week, Monday brought the second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords. This Bill is a once in a lifetime opportunity for campaigners and for our sector to work with Government to create better outcomes for women experiencing domestic abuse. The Bill proposes the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner as well as measures which provide better support for women and children through the family courts, funding for services as well as broader and updated definitions of domestic abuse.
One of the first amendments tabled was by Baroness Ros Altmann, and supported vocally and passionately by Lords Mendelsohn, Polak, Palmer and Baroness Deech, proposing a set of amendments to include Get refusal (the refusal of a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a Jewish bill of divorce) within the definition of coercive and controlling behaviour which is an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015. Get refusal is already dealt with in civil law in the form of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 and this criminal sanction would be a welcome and much needed addition to the law.
Those women who live as Agunot – chained women – will, the speakers argued, benefit enormously from the support of English Law. They were at pains to point out that there are not a large number of Agunot in the UK, but that even one is one too many. Recently, the threat of private prosecutions based on a claim of coercive and controlling behaviour has led to at least two Gittin being given to women. The hope is that should this provision become enshrined in law, more cases like these will follow and the knowledge of such cases would act as a deterrent to would-be Get refusers.
The thorny issue of Agunot has cast a shadow over us for years. At Jewish Women’s Aid we have long considered Get refusal to be a form of abuse – it is another way of controlling a woman and is a form of powerplay imposed upon women who have, too often, already been subjected to years of humiliating abuse.
Domestic abuse is designed to degrade, disempower and destabilise women. Self-esteem drips away, leaving a woman with little wherewithal to stand her ground and advocate effectively for herself. By the time a woman reaches a point where she wants to fight for her Get after years of abuse, she is often worn out.
Our Batei Din have in recent years taken steps to support chained women, through befriending services, Get caseworkers and in some cases of Get refusal, public campaigns and sanctions focussed on encouraging the recalcitrant husband to give the Get. The measures proposed in the House of Lords will not stand in the way of the work of the Jewish courts.
These new measures, to be further discussed in the Lords in the next few weeks during the progress of the Domestic Abuse Bill will be an additional tool in our arsenal, allowing Jewish Women’s Aid and specialist legal teams to advocate more strongly for women, and helping Agunot to secure their Get, allowing them the freedom to move on with their lives.