top of page

How domestic violence has been understood throughout history

‘Domestic violence’ is a relatively modern term to address an issue that women have been suffering from for centuries. It was first used in 1973 by the Labour MP Jack Ashley while addressing the UK Parliament to bring to light women’s experiences he had claimed ‘no one wants to know’ [1]. Women had been dismissed by the police, and ignored by the law and the state in their protection, none wanted to accept the weight of their responsibility or their neglect.

Today, victims of domestic violence face the same problems. A recent study in the UK that included over 1,000 victim-survivors of domestic abuse found that 53% reported an incident to the police as least two times before appropriate action was taken, with women from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds dismissed disproportionately [2]. On average, victims will experience around 50 incidents of abuse before they receive effective help [22].

This is felt more significantly by women from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, with a report from EVAW finding that police were 1.5 times more likely to bring forward a charge when the victim-survivor was white than when they were black [23]. This translates to a lack of trust in public services and increased vulnerability for Black victim-survivors, with 85% of African and/or Caribbean heritage women in the UK saying they do not feel supported by non-Black domestic violence advisors because of a lack of situational and cultural understanding [24].

Women encounter these issues globally, from loopholes within the law or from silences within their communities, despite the national and international changes that have taken place over the last few decades that have shone a spotlight onto violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and girls and patriarchy

Violence against women and girls has been normalised within societies, promoted within culture and enshrined through law. Male superiority was built around how women were inferior to men not only physically but in their rational and intellectual capacities. From Ancient Greece, where women were deemed to be by nature rationally inferior to men, to the Enlightenment where many believed women’s subordination to be justified by their weaker, gentler natures. Where patriarchy is assumed as natural, male violence within and outside of the household has been a natural expression of their dominance [3]. From the Babylonian Hammurabi Code (1760 BCE) that punished a wife for refusing to have sex with her husband through drowning to the Catholic Church’s “The Rules of Marriage” which saw it fit for a husband to beat his wife. The common phrase the ‘rule of thumb’ is traced back to the idea that the stick a man would use to beat his wife with was not to be thicker than the width of his thumb.

Early laws against domestic abuse

Early laws did exist against violence within married relationships, although general attitudes and norms did not change with their enactment. In 1857, the UK introduced the Matrimonial Causes Act which included abuse as a reason for divorce, alongside adultery or desertion, although the focus was not on abuse. In the US, wife beating would become outlawed across the country from the 1850s. Sweden is another example of it being criminalised in 1864. Despite this growing legal recognition against physical abuse within marital relationships, it would still persist and take place within homes and was still normalised within communities.

Domestic abuse as a women’s issue

It was not until the 1970s that domestic violence would be highlighted as an issue within itself and given a platform. The drive for reform and change was led by women's movements internationally beginning in the 1960s, the second wave of feminism saw violence against women and girls as a central issue for women’s total equality. In the UK, the Women’s Liberation Movement would emerge in the early 1970s and through practical activism, organise and protest for women’s equality. The first women’s shelter was established in 1971 by Refuge in Chiswick, after being given permission by the council to use a derelict house [4]. Three years later Women’s Aid would be set up to connect independent refuge services together nationally in 1974 [5]. The end of the decade would see the formation of Southall Black Sisters, an organisation which sought to ‘break the silence’ on domestic violence within minority communities and offer refuge services to women and children in need [6]. Similar is the New Women’s Movement in India which saw increased women’s organising within feminist politics, from breaking away from nationalist or radical leftist [7], with groups such as Stree Mukti Sanghatana founded in 1975 [8]. There was a national focus on violence against women, the Mathura rape case in 1972 saw nationwide protests for law reform and state intervention alongside the increased coverage on dowry related violence known as ‘dowry deaths’ or ‘bride burnings’ [9]. The murder of Tarvinder Kaur by her in-laws was one of many women whose murders were protested by crowds who would line the streets in protest [10]. Violence towards women and girls was an issue that mobilised and brought activists together.

Women protesting against rape, New Delhi, 8 March 1980

©Getty Images, Accessed via:

International focus: Women’s issues become human rights issues

Violence against women and girls began to be treated as a global issue that required international coordinated intervention. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1946 to monitor and promote women’s rights but work would not take place until the 1970s. The focus on discrimination would begin in 1975, where the UN held the First World Conference on Women in Mexico to highlight how gender discrimination was not only an ongoing struggle, but opened it up for a ‘worldwide dialogue’ alongside the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) [11]. The end of the decade saw the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women of the United Nations General Assembly (CEDAW) take place in 1979 [12]. From the 1990s, there was a greater focus on violence. In 1992, the CEDAW Committee would state that violence against women was a form of discrimination in its General Recommendation No.19 [13]. The following year in 1993, the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights deemed violence against women a violation of human rights. They would call on the international community to work to eliminate violence against women, based on how it violates women’s rights and freedoms [14]. The following Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action would mention violence against women and girls:

“Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated.” [15]

The opening of the World Conference of the International Women's Year at the Juan de la Barrera Gymnasium in Mexico City on 19 June 1975.

UN Photo/B Lane, Accessed via:

This would also result in the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls. This mandate was an incredibly important milestone in the global women’s rights movement as it recognised violence against women as a human rights violation. As well, it gave the responsibility to the Special Rapporteur to make sure violence against women was ‘integrated into the UN human rights framework and its mechanisms’ [16]. The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, saw over 17,000 participants which included 6,000 government delegates and over 4,000 accredited NGO representatives in attendance [17]. This one of the most important between 1975-1995, having brought thousands together after the previous three conferences to work together for gender equality. This would result in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action being adopted by 189 countries. This agenda would become one of the key global policy documents on gender equality, one that would famously state ‘women’s rights are human rights’ [18]. Not only discrimination, but violence against women and girls shifted from being only a women’s issue to a human rights issue.

Changing definitions and understandings of domestic abuse:

How as a society we understand and recognise abuse has now evolved beyond the image of the ‘battered woman’ and legislation has broadened and expanded its scope on its definitions of domestic violence. From the 1990s, sexual abuse within intimate relationships has been highlighted with legislation criminalising it such as in the UK in 1991. Economic and financial abuse are recognised as distinct forms of abuse, from controlling income and stealing money to restricting access to resources such as food or clothes. For the first time this was recognised in the Domestic Abuse Act for England and Wales (2021) alongside non-fatal strangulation/suffocation. France was the first nation to criminalise psychological abuse within marriages in 2010 and since, a more comprehensive understanding has emerged, recognising it as both verbal and non verbal forms of manipulation, control or cruelty. In 2015, England and Wales would be the first countries to recognise coercive control as a form of domestic abuse. This July, Singapore‘s Women’s Charter Amendment Bill was updated to include expanded definitions of family violence, recognising coercive and controlling behaviour.

Campaigns are still ongoing globally and there are still changes that need to be made. Disparities between laws and their implementation are increasingly highlighted. Loopholes in legislation have been amended such as in Pakistan in 2016, where the previous Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (2016) had allowed for honour killings to be forgiven by the victims' families. Recently in 2017, Lebanon repealed the law which allowed for rapists to marry their victims, from the campaigning of women's rights activists [19].

The term ‘femicide’ became a popular term from the 1970s, used in relation to deaths of women caused by men. South America has one of the highest rates [20]. In 2015, the anti-femicide movement Ni Una Menos would begin online and be taken up first by Argentina and spread across South American countries, where thousands would take to the streets in demonstrations [21].

Activists protest against gender violence in Plaza de Mayo, overlooking the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ni Una Menos movement in Argentina.

Photograph: Víctor R Caivano/AP, Accessed via:

How domestic violence has been perceived and understood, both on a personal level to a communal one, within culture and in law has evolved incredibly over the past few decades. Although, there are still great barriers not only in understanding but in asking and receiving help. There are places where these different forms of abuse remain unrecognised within societies and laws. Both the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have seen spikes in domestic abuse cases.

By Olivia Cordara, Thrive Intern and Research Hub Member


[1] Battered Wives, 1973 - Available here

[2] Victim Support

[3] Vivienne Fox, Historical Perspectives on Violence Against Women, 2002

[4] Our History, Refuge

[5] History, Women's Aid

[6] Who we are, Southall Black Sisters

[7] Samita Sen, “Toward a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective,” Policy Research Report on Gender and Development (9), 2000.

[8] Our history, Stree Mukti Sanghatana

[9] Kaamila Patherya, "Domestic Violence and the Indian Women's Movement: A Short History." Inquiries Journal 9.11 (2017).

[10] Contextualising the Indian Women's Movement: Class, Representation and Collaboration - In Focus, Tate

[11] World Conference of the International Women's Year, UN

[12] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women New York, 18 December 1979, OHCHR

[13] Launch of CEDAW General Recommendation No 35 on Gender-Based Violence Against Women, Updating General Recommendation No 19, OHCHR

[14] World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 1993, OHCHR

[15] Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, OHCHR

[16] Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls, OHCHR

[17] Fourth World Conference on Women, United Nations

[18] Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing Declaration

[19] Lebanon rape law: Parliament abolishes marriage loophole, BBC News

[20] Femicide or feminicide, Gender Equality Observatory

[21] Take five: Fighting femicide in Latin America, UN Women

[22] How long do people live with domestic abuse, and when do they get help to spot it?, Safe Lives

[23] Violence Against Women and Girls Snapshot Report 2021-22, EVAW

[24] Sistah Space


bottom of page