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23 June 2011

A conservative social agenda risks turning the clock back on women’s rights

Progressives need to take the lead on creating a more equal and safer society

By Marai Larasi

With MPs debating sexual abstinence lessons for girls only, Ken Clarke defining ‘serious rape’ as “violence and an unwilling woman” (as opposed to a willing one?), and Mother’s Union boss Reg Bailey primarily focusing on parental concern in a Number 10-backed report on the sexualisation of childhood, you might wonder what century this is.

Advances made by feminists in shifting legal and policy approaches to violence against women now seem at risk.

Yet the Coalition Government (and the Labour Government before that) must be credited with publishing a cross-government violence against women and girls strategy which is based on the principles of women’s equality and human rights and has a clear aim of preventing violence before it happens.

This is something the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition has long-campaigned for, and with good reason. Violence against women is a stain on society that can result in physical injury and death in extreme cases, gynaecological problems, STIs, poor mental health and substance misuse problems. It is far more widespread than commonly thought with around 60,000 rapes each year, two women a week being killed by a partner or former partner and around 20,000 girls under 15 in England and Wales thought to be at risk of female genital mutilation.

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Each rape is estimated to cost around £122,000 and domestic violence has a total annual health cost of around £1,100,000,000. So in an economic climate where there is constant pressure to be cost-effective, the case for prevention is clear both on ethical and financial grounds. Moreover, the UK has international human rights obligations to take a prevention-driven approach, such as under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Disappointingly, the Coalition Government is sending mixed signals. The Home Secretary states that her aim is “…nothing less than ending violence against women and girls” whilst the Education Secretary is weakening obligations on schools to address this issue by separating sex and relationships education (SRE) out of the statutory National Curriculum review.

In a ground-breaking report published today, EVAW makes concrete recommendations for governments and public bodies based on cutting-edge evidence on the factors underlying violence. We focus on education and young people because attitudes start young and they are reinforced at many levels; girls and boys learn at an early age what it is to be a woman or man in our highly gendered society and polls regularly show alarmingly high levels of tolerance to violence against women amongst young people. Our children are growing up in a culture that objectifies women and girls through a myriad of media sources; boys access porn at an increasingly early age and this affects their expectations of sexual relationships.; mobile phones and social networking sites have multiplied the ways in which women and girls can be harassed, exploited and abused.

But despite legal obligations to ensure that Britain’s four million schoolgirls are safe and a duty to promote gender equality, many schools fear opening a can of worms if they talk about these issues. The increasing focus on bullying in recent years is rarely from a gendered perspective.
But these issues are real in young people’s lives and not talking about them won’t make them go away. A YouGov poll for EVAW found that 70 per cent of young people witness daily sexual harassment and name calling at school such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’. This creates a culture of disrespect towards women and girls where abuse is seen as acceptable. The poll also found that almost a third of girls experienced unwanted sexual contact at school and other research shows that girls experience high levels of sexual violence from partners.

The Home Affairs Committee recently reported schools are failing to respond to girls at risk of forced marriage with teachers unequipped to respond — in some cases schools have actually put female students in greater danger by, for example, contacting their families. Research also shows that young women and girls affected by gang-related violence may experience further abuse in male-dominated environments such as Pupil Referral Units.

What are we calling for? For a start, Michael Gove should tell all schools that this is a national priority and head teachers should lead a ‘whole school approach’ by ensuring that sexist language and behaviour are consistently challenged, and creating a culture of respect and equality. We are also calling for teachers to receive ongoing training on all forms of violence against women and girls and for SRE to be statutory and to include sexual consent, gender equality and respectful relationships. It is critical for schools to link with specialist local women’s services to provide support for girls who experience abuse. Local authorities also have a clear role in funding specialist services and delivering ongoing public awareness campaigns as part of local VAWG strategies.

In our schools and our communities, we should no longer put up with a culture that sees the safety of women and girls as an afterthought. We must take action now.

Marai Larasi MBE is the Co-Chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Director of Imkaan