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.