By Caroline Lucas MP - 12th October 2011
Violence against women is not inevitable – through measures like raising awareness in schools and protecting women's organisations from funding cuts, we can help change attitudes and prevent abuse says Caroline Lucas MP.
As a society, we are currently failing to tackle violence against women and girls with anything like the urgency or seriousness that the problem deserves. The alarming facts and figures speak for themselves: nationally, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and it's thought that two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. An estimated 60,000 women are raped every year.
Last year in Brighton and Hove, home to my constituency, 277 people in the city sought housing advice and 102 homeless applications were made due to domestic violence, while 10,984 women experienced physical and emotional violence, and 2,736 women experienced sexual assault.
A number of polls have also revealed dangerous attitudes amongst young people in the UK around women and violence. An NSPCC study in 2005 revealed that almost half (43 per cent) of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner.
A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) found that a third of girls are subjected to unwanted sexual contact at school, with sexual harassment being routine. And the NSPCC has found that 33 per cent of girls in an intimate partner relationship aged 13-17 have experienced some form of sexual violence.
Historically, the approach by governments to this crisis has been to focus on dealing with the fallout of violence once it’s happened, for example, through supporting victims and bringing perpetrators to court. And of course, this work remains crucial. But there has been little investment so far in efforts to prevent gendered violence in the first place.
In this context, I welcome the Home Office strategy, 'Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls', which does at least recognise the need for a more targeted approach and purports to put prevention at its heart. Yet I fear that objective is being undermined by a lack of joined up thinking and by the policies of other government departments.
Moreover, as the domestic violence team at Brighton and Hove City Council tell me, there is no allocated funding for prevention and early intervention of violence against women in the government's strategy. All the money is still allocated to crisis work, with limited attention given to addressing the cause of the problem – perpetrators’ behaviour.
Brighton and Hove, whose intelligent commissioning on domestic violence is recognised as good practice , have a local commitment to developing a violence against women and girls strategy, with work already underway to deliver on this. However, not many local areas have this coordinated approach and so I'd like the government to consider making it an obligation that all local authorities have to fulfil.
All over the UK, women's organisations, many of which are struggling with funding in the face of the government's savage spending cuts and reductions in legal aid, are doing innovative work with young people to help change attitudes. For example, the Brighton and Hove based charity RISE delivers a PSHE (Personal Social Health and Economic) preventative education programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city.
Yet work to prevent violence against women and girls cannot be left to occasional campaigns or women’s organisations working in partnership with a few good schools. So in my debate in Parliament today, I want to discuss the role which schools can play as a primary forum for this work. Educational programmes about violence against women and girls, which challenge entrenched attitudes and highlight the gravity of the issue, must be an integral part of the curriculum in every school.
We must also do more to empower young people to cope with the sexual images they are bombarded with everyday. The announcement by the prime minister of a range of measures to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of children is a welcome sign that the government is prepared to tackle the kind of imagery which contributes to gendered violence. But it's important that any strategy goes beyond consumer and parent power and include young people from the outset.
If the government is really serious about addressing failing support for its policies amongst female voters, it should begin by doing far more to protect the organisations delivering crucial support for women and girls, and look to prevent gendered violence through education policy.
Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party and has been MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010