The Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 (VAWDASV) is the first piece of legislation in the United Kingdom to explicitly and specifically address violence against women as opposed to ‘domestic violence’ generally. VAWDASV is the first Act in the UK to explicitly refer to ‘violence against women’ in its title (followed by Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017).
Following a unanimous vote of the National Assembly for Wales (now, the Welsh Parliament), it became law in Wales on 29 April 2015. Its key purpose is to improve the public sector response in relation to the prevention of acts of gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and sexual violence, the protection of victims, and support of those affected. However, it is not only the name of the Act that sets it as a landmark – its significance goes much further than that.
But why is it significant?
Violence against women (VAW), in all its forms, is a global pandemic. It is estimated that, globally, 736 million (and up to 852 million) women have been subjected to either or both physical and/or sexual violence at least once since the age of 15 and 83 million to 102 million women across the EU have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2014, p.95). In England and Wales, in the year ending March 2019, the crime survey estimated 25% of women aged 18 to 74 years (totalling approximately 5.1 million women) had experienced some form of abuse before the age of 16 years. These figures have been rising worldwide throughout the COVID pandemic
Although the law alone cannot tackle VAW, it is crucial that there are adequate laws and policies in place which establish accountability for acts of VAW and offer protection, as well as routes of redress to the victims. Prior to the enactment of the VAWDASV, a number of domestic laws in England and Wales provided protection for women from certain types of gender-related, domestic and sexual violence as well as remedies against such acts. However, these laws did not necessarily translate into practical steps to monitor, prevent and combat VAW – rather, they were largely reactive (rather than preventive) and limited to criminalisation of such acts. VAWDASV has effectively departed from this approach: it does not introduce any new statutory offences, but places a series of duties on Welsh Ministers as well as Welsh local authorities and health boards to take proactive steps to deliver the primary purposes of the Act. This has practical implications on how law and policy in Wales intersect in a joined effort to not only punish but also prevent and combat VAW.
Importantly, VAWDASV is an example of landmark piece of legislation which was created and operationalised in a devolved jurisdiction – Wales. As such, in both a legal and political context, it demonstrates the potential for devolved Nations to lead the way in tackling societal problems in a modern and progressive manner. Other examples of such approach include the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 and the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. VAWDASV reshaped the way in which public sector in Wales is responding to violence against women, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. It made those issues a priority, both for the Welsh Government and for the public sector. It is certainly hoped that, in the long-term, the Act will have a transformative effect on public attitudes towards violence against women.