As the UK celebrates Valentine’s Day, another kind of celebration is taking place to mark the 15th anniversary of V-Day – Victory, Valentine and Vagina Day. This day is the culmination of the One Billion Rising campaign, which will see people across the world coming together to dance, sing and say “no more” to violence against women and girls.
Globally the UN estimates one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. Many others face sex trafficking, genital mutilation, forced marriage, ‘honor killings’ and more. Tragic and outrageous cases like the gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in Delhi and, more recently, a 17-year-old girl in South Africa, are the tip of the iceberg.
Here in the UK, 60,000 women are raped every year. An estimated two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Every day we find new evidence of widespread sexual abuse in institutions and in communities.
This is violence on an endemic scale, yet as a nation, we have been far too reluctant to embark on the kind of radical and robust measures needed to address the underlying causes as well as the consequences.
The impact of all this on our young people is clear. A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women coalition found that one in three 16-18 year old girls had experienced ‘groping’ or other unwanted sexual touching at school.
Almost half of teenage girls believe it’s acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner, whilst 1 in 2 boys and 1 in 3 girls think there are some circumstances when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.
The time has come to ask why so many people think it is acceptable to treat girls and women as objects to be used and abused – and what we can do to address the cultural factors which influence those attitudes.
In the media, women have been served up as sex objects in daily newspapers for years. From the Sun’s embarrassingly anachronistic Page 3, to the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’ representing women as merely the sum of their ‘curves’ or ‘pins’, the media consistently fails to tell a positive story about women and girls.
While the media establishment is only part of the picture – violent online pornography, for example, has taken objectification of women to even more worrying levels – the treatment by some newspapers of issues like rape go some way towards explaining why prejudicial views are so deeply entrenched.
In evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry and subsequently published in a report called Just the Women, women’s groups highlighted how rape cases are routinely reported next to pictures of half-naked women.
Alison Saunders, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, has expressed concerns about the consequences for rape trials, saying "if a girl goes out and gets drunk and falls over ... they are almost demonised in the media, and if they then become a victim, you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear.”
Leveson illustrated the many ways in which the media needs to change. Tackling gender discrimination should be at the top of the list – starting with a guarantee that the new Editors Code of Conduct will contain a stronger clause on discrimination.
Schools also have a crucial role to play in helping young people to navigate damaging cultural messages. Work to prevent violence against women and girls must become an integral part of education policy, delivered in every school as part of the statutory curriculum.
This means PSHE (Personal Social Health and Economic) education teaching not just about consent, but also relationship abuse, forced marriage and sexual exploitation - allowing students to take greater control of their sexual identities and to challenge stereotypes.
In Brighton and Hove, the charity RISE is already leading the way – delivering a ground breaking PSHE programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city, with students receiving comprehensive sex and relationships education dealing with consent, equality and respect.
Today, One Billion Rising is a powerful expression of the growing momentum for change. On a global scale, people are demanding more equal societies and real political action to end violence against women and girls.
We must seize this opportunity to make our schools and streets safer, and to help women, girls, boys and men to challenge the attitudes which keep holding us back.