Making the Grade? Not yet...

Janet Veitch says that with a score of 2 out of 10, the Government needs to start taking real action

For the last three weeks the New Statesman has been highlighting the funding crisis facing the Rape Crisis sector. As an isolated problem it would be serious enough but, unfortunately, it serves to highlight problems for violence against women more broadly.

A staggering three million women face sexual or domestic violence, forced marriage, trafficking or other violence every year in the UK and many more have experienced abuse in the past or as a child. So even if we haven’t directly experienced violence ourselves, we all know someone – a friend, family member or work colleague – who has. Statistically, the majority of this violence is perpetrated by men against women, which is why it is a gender issue.

The impact of violence is deeply damaging, ranging from cuts and bruises to serious injury or death in the most extreme cases. It causes long-term emotional and psychological harm. Sexual violence can also lead to forced pregnancy and STDs. The direct cost to the economy of domestic violence, just one form of violence, each year in England and Wales is £6 billion. So as a society we are paying a very high price. Violence is also a major driver of women’s inequality.

This is why such a diverse group including Amnesty, Rape Crisis, the TUC, Women’s Aid and the Women’s Institute have come together under the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition. Every year we assess how Government Departments are addressing violence against women and publish the results in our Making the Grade? reports. Today, we are publishing our findings for 2007. Whilst some departments score highly, most notably the Crown Prosecution Service, others continue to fail to take this issue seriously.

The Government’s overall score this year is a very disappointing 2 out of 10, the same as last year. The report welcomes initiatives such as Specialist Domestic Violence Courts and Sexual Assault Referral Centres but shows that the overall approach is patchy and mostly focused on the criminal justice system.

This is short-sighted. As the New Statesman Rape Crisis campaign has highlighted, the vast majority of victims (around 80%) do not report to the police, so their case never enters the criminal justice system. Rape Crisis Centres, domestic violence refuges and other specialist services offer routes out of violence and support for women through the justice system that enable them to move on with their lives. And yet, there is a postcode lottery in the provision of these life-saving services. It is astonishing that a third of local authorities across the UK don’t have such services at all. Furthermore, fewer than one in ten have specialist services for ethnic minority women (addressing issues like forced marriage) and where they do exist they are threatened with significant funding cuts or even closure (as in the case of Southall Black Sisters). More detail on this issue can be found in Map of Gaps, our joint report with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Indeed the Commission has issued stark warnings to the worst performing local authorities that it will take legal action under the Gender Equality Duty if they don’t improve.

But the funding crisis is not the only problem. Conviction rates for all forms of violence against women are still very low, so perpetrators go unpunished. Furthermore, there is no plan of action to actually prevent violence from happening. Where are the public campaigns to challenge attitudes that tolerate violence? Why is there no requirement on schools to address issues like healthy relationships or consent to sex when surveys consistently show unhealthy attitudes justifying and condoning violence amongst young men in particular?

The good initiatives are being undermined by the lack of a strategic approach which is why EVAW members are united in calling for a cross-departmental strategy to address violence against women. This would make the connections between different forms of violence and ensure that all Government departments play their part. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are now advocating a strategic approach. In Scotland, the Government has been developing just such an approach for some time.

Some Whitehall Departments are leading the way. The CPS consistently scores highest in Making the Grade? because it is developing a Violence Against Women Strategy (to be published shortly).

As a signatory to the UN Beijing Platform for Action, the UK is required to implement national action plans to work towards ending violence against women. This summer in New York, Government Ministers will be reporting on progress on tackling discrimination against women to the UN. This must be the year it can report real action on these commitments and send the message to women that violence against women is a priority.

Making the Grade? 2007 is being launched at 6:30pm tonight in Westminster. Download a copy of the report