Why you won’t hear about violence against women in this week’s debate

Half of women experience violence or stalking in their lifetime. But our leaders still won't debate

Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than get breast cancer, but you can bet that Brown, Clegg and Cameron won't talk about violence against women (VAW) in the final leaders' debate this Thursday.

Staggeringly, half of women in England and Wales experience sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking in their lifetime. Based on government figures, it is estimated to cost over £40 billion a year (including the cost to public services, women's lost economic output and the human cost). Think of most policy areas and there will be a link - health, poverty, inequality, crime, the economy and so it goes on. Despite this, the issue wasn't deemed worthy of discussion in either of the first two leadership debates.

Whilst televised debates encourage soundbites, the manifestos have space to flesh out policies in more detail. So it is astonishing that the Lib Dem manifesto makes no reference to the issue, such as the funding crisis facing rape crisis centres or the need to challenge attitudes that condone violence. Clegg's star may be rising but this is a shocking omission from the party that claims to embody "change".

In their manifesto, the Conservatives promise funding for new and existing Rape Crisis Centres and to include the issue of consent in sex education. But despite having published their own strategy calling for a cross-government approach, their manifesto shows little evidence of this. For instance, how will their Big Society idea of shifting power from the centre to local areas end patchy service provision (as we have charted in our joint Map of Gaps campaign with the Equality and Human Rights Commission? What impact will tougher immigration policies have on ethnic minority women experiencing violence? Clearly, women who leave abusive husbands were not high on the agenda when the marriage tax giveaway was dreamt up.

In its manifesto Labour's recognition of the need to tackle the causes of VAW and raise awareness, not just improve the criminal justice response, is welcome. However it is disappointing that VAW is not reflected across different policy areas or linked to equality and human rights. This is despite the recent publication of a cross-government strategy, after years of campaigning by the End Violence Against Women coalition. There is no reference to the plight of women trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation, and whilst there is a commitment to women-only provision there is no plan to end the funding crisis facing women's services.

Both Labour and Conservative manifestos give a nod to restricting sexualised products marketed at children. Indeed, during the furore surrounding Primark's glittery padded bikini bras for seven year old girls, both Cameron and Brown spoke out in support of Mumsnet's Let Girls Be Girls campaign (although, as the New Statesman has pointed out, Cameron has been strangely silent about Next selling padded bras for girls, noting that its chief executive is a major Tory backer). In the Nationalists and smaller party manifestos, only Plaid Cymru and the Greens support violence against women strategies.

Dubbed the 'Mumsnet election', the parties are keenly aware that women's votes are critical - indeed, the Lib Dems' current surge in the polls is mostly down to women. And yet the absence of women (aside from the leaders' wives) in the campaign has been widely commented on. The lack of debate about women's equality is even starker. When prompted at women's sector events women politicians have fleshed out their policies. All well and good but with three white male leaders slugging it out in tv debates hosted by three white men will violence against women get the airing it deserves? Don't hold your breath.

 

Holly Dustin is manager of the End Violence Against Women coalition.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.