The challenge of ending violence against women in the UK is one of the most serious that will face an incoming government. With three million women experiencing violence each year in a variety of forms, it is a complex problem.
Although the Government have made some progress in this area, it has largely been in the field of criminal justice. Whilst this is important, an approach that sees tackling violence against women simply as a matter for the criminal justice system misses the point. At the heart of the Government’s failure to understand this has been its failure to implement a cross-government strategy on tackling violence.
Such a strategy is necessary if we are to acknowledge the fact that violence against women touches on numerous areas of public policy. Think of a man forcing his partner to take on debts in her name. Or think of a woman forced into homelessness because she is fleeing a violent relationship. These cases touch on issues of finance, economic dependence, housing and more. Violence against women should be considered a core issue across government departments, both centrally and locally. In 2007, David Cameron committed a Conservative government to implementing a cross-government strategy and our recent strategy document Ending Violence Against Women outlines some of the measures we will implement.
As newstatesman.com readers will know, one of the most alarming issues in this area has been the decline in the number of Rape Crisis centres over recent years. Rape Crisis centres provide vital support to the victims of rape and sexual abuse, but due to funding uncertainties their numbers have significantly declined. The majority of women now have no access to one.
I am determined that a Conservative government would do more to support these vital services. That’s why we recently announced our commitment not just to providing stable funding to existing centres but to establishing 15 new centres to fill some of the gaps that have emerged. We will allocate £2.6 million from Victim Surcharge revenue to go towards the establishment of 15 new centres, growing the current network by more than a third. This significant commitment will begin to reverse the trend that has resulted in so many women being unable to access the support that they need.
At the heart of a strategy to tackle violence against women must be the need for preventative work so that we can tackle the root causes of violence. I believe that schools have an important role to play here. Surveys suggest that around 40 per cent of young men believe it is acceptable to expect to have sex with a girl if she is ‘very flirtatious’, and – equally worrying – 16 per cent of girls agree with this. We must ensure that young people are taught about consent as part of sex education.
However, education about these issues must extend beyond schools. We also need to make sure that front-line professionals, such as police and teachers, are properly trained to deal with violence against women and, crucially, spot its symptoms when it might not be obvious. Part of this will simply be raising awareness on issues such as female genital mutilation, on which there is little guidance given.
A Conservative government will ensure appropriate training is given to professionals such as police, teachers and health visitors. Indeed, health visitors have an important role to play as 30 per cent of domestic violence starts during or just after a pregnancy. We will provide 4,200 additional health visitors and ensure that they are appropriately trained in spotting the signs of violence.
This is crucial work and it will not be easy, but I call on the Government to adopt the integrated strategy that I and many others have been advocating. For millions of women across the country it will be not a moment too soon.
Rt Hon Theresa May MP, shadow leader of the House of Commons and shadow minister for women