The model of abuse that guides society's understanding and response to domestic violence has failed us. Based on a straightforward analogy between domestic violence and assault, this model identifies the seriousness of a partner's acts according to legal degrees of criminal abuse: according to how much violence is involved and the degree of injury inflicted. No matter how well intended, application of this model to protect women and their children has been disastrous for all concerned. This is because the phenomenon that advocates and policy makers are trying to manage and for which millions of primarily female victims and their children seek help annually has little in common with the types of assault the paradigm describes. For a way out of this morass, I turn to public health.
Society's response to violence against women in families and relationships has been revolutionized since the first battered women shelters opened in the early l970s. The material foundation of this revolution is women's increasing importance to the economy worldwide and their corresponding attainment of formal legal equality. On the ground, the revolution has been characterized by a vast array of legal reforms and the adoption of public policies designed to support the basic goals of women's advocacy groups worldwide – enhanced safety and support for victims and accountability for offenders. These changes are supported by the development of a vast knowledge base documenting the extent, seriousness, dynamic and, context of violence against women in relationships.