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.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.