Feeling Safe, Being Safe: Strategies to combat Violence against Women and Girls

“Your Body belongs to You” demo in Bonn November 2020 – Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

All women deserve to feel and be safe, at home, in their communities, on the streets and at work.  The murders of Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, Sabina Nessa, 18-year-old Bobbi-Anne McLeod in Plymouth and many others have shone a light on the epidemic of male violence against women and the way it blights every single day of the lives of all women and girls.

For many years, an average of 2 to 3 women per week have been murdered by men in the UK. More than 80 women have been murdered by men since Sarah’s death. Vigils have been held, candles lit and tears shed, but we know that millions of other instances of abuse will never make the headlines. The scale of the problem is enormous and pressure has been mounting on government to tackle violence against women and girls more effectively.

Reported cases of sexual violence showed an 8% increase in the year ending June 2021 (164,763 offences) compared with the previous year, according to the latest ONS report. Rape offences were the highest ever recorded in a 12-month period, with 61,158 offences recorded by the police in the latest year.

The number of domestic abuse-related crimes also rose by 6% in the year to nearly 850,000 offences. This was during the periods of lockdown. While some may argue that this increase is atypical, reflecting the particular circumstances of the pandemic, it may well be simply highlighting new opportunities to abuse during domestic isolation.

What then, are this Conservative government’s plans to tackle this?

The Government Strategy on violence against women

In June last year the government unveiled its long-awaited Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy which is to respond to and ultimately prevent VAWG, to improve the experiences of survivors, to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice, and to enhance the way different organisations work together.

A raft of commitments were made, including a new national policing lead on VAWG, a £5 million ‘Safety of Women at Night’ Fund, the criminalisation of virginity testing, additional support for helplines, a communications campaign targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes and an online tool where women and girls can log areas where they have felt unsafe.

However, many have said that these plans are not far-reaching enough. Jess Phillips noted in the Commons that –

“Today rape prosecutions are at a record low, domestic abuse in this country is soaring, charging is falling. Sexual abuse in schools is being normalised, according to the recent Ofsted inspections. Ending violence against women and girls is a cross-party issue, on all sides of this House there is a profound concern and desire for an ambitious strategy that would deliver. The strategy today is not ambitious enough.”

In response to the government’s new strategy, the former Tory minister, Caroline Nokes, said she was disappointed there is “no current commitment to outlawing public sexual harassment”. The laws governing sexual harassment are piecemeal and antiquated. It is outrageous that if a girl is going to school on public transport and a man presses against her and whispers obscene comments in her ear, she is not protected by existing laws.

A survey by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust reveals a “concerning prevalence” of unwanted violent, aggressive or sexual behaviours against women and girls travelling on public transport over the last five years  with disproportionate rates amongst women in  LGBTQ+, black and ethnic minority communities. A shocking 88% of respondents surveyed experienced some form of unwanted behaviour on public transport, despite reduced footfall during the pandemic. On this issue, there is remarkably little in the new strategy.

Change is urgently needed to ensure individuals’ right to mobility across public space, including their right to travel safely on public transport.

One key problem of VAWG is what happens when women do report sexual assault to the authorities. In June 2021, the then Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, confessed that he was “deeply sorry” many victims had been denied justice “as a result of systemic failings”. Of course, this follows from years of Tory-imposed austerity. 

In the past 12 months just 41 extra suspects were charged with rape by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) compared with the year before, while the figures for prosecution of domestic abuse continue to fall: the number of CPS prosecutions fell for the fifth consecutive year. In the year ending March 2016, there were 75,236 convictions for domestic abuse; in the year ending March 2021, that figure had dropped to 42,574.

The appointment of a new national police lead for violence against women and girls is a welcome first step but as Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales argues, VAWG should be made a strategic policing requirement to give the issue central direction and extra resources, particularly for specialist officers, so that there is “no doubt what obligations the police have towards victims”.

By introducing two separate strategies – one for domestic abuse and another for other forms of violence against women – there is a risk that the root causes of these crimes – gender inequality and misogyny– will be obscured. One single, integrated strategy is needed. Failure to do so risks fragmenting the response to VAWG and will result in ineffective actions which are not rooted in the experiences of women.  

Where is the money?

Much of the criticism of the government’s strategy focuses on the question of funding. A sticking plaster is offered instead of sustained support for victims. Frontline services have suffered significant cuts over the last decade or so.

While the government’s commitment to provide additional funding for specialist support services and to fund a new rape and sexual assault helpline is welcome, it is far from adequate and is yet another example of short-term funding which will not guarantee the long-term provision of life-saving services. Women’s Aid estimates that £393 million is needed for domestic abuse services alone. Demand is much higher than the provision available, with 57.2% of refuge referrals declined during the year – 18.1% of all referrals were turned down due to lack of capacity in a refuge.

An alternative holistic approach

Labour has also published a Green Paper  on how to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls. It advocates a holistic approach – a cross departmental, long-term response to tackling the misogyny that underpins the abuse and violence women and girls face.

Calling for misogyny to be made a hate crime would compel police forces to record when a crime was motivated by hatred of someone’s sex or gender. Stella Creasy, Labour MP, has long campaigned on this issue. She suggests that where it has been introduced by police forces:

“it has also helped with confidence in police and changing the culture in the police about how the deal with violence against women.”   

Labour’s proposals also include toughening existing sentences for perpetrators of rape and stalking, creating new specific offences for street sexual harassment and the practice of landlords asking for sex in lieu of rent, as well as introducing bold measures to reverse record low conviction rates for rape. The Green Paper itself calls for a ‘duty to commission sufficient specialist domestic abuse services for all victims of domestic abuse and sustainable long-term funding for services.

Labour would also create a specific ministerial position with oversight for rape and sexual violence survivors which would involve the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the attorney general’s office, and public health departments. Labour also proposes that the government should be held to specific targets to measure progress on male violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The piecemeal proposals in the government’s strategy alone won’t end femicide (the intentional killing of women or girls because they are female), domestic abuse, or sexual harassment. Misogyny underpins violence against women and girls. The elimination of misogyny in all its forms, institutional and personal, should be the focus of any strategy to combat violence against women and girls. A holistic approach is vital.

The Law Commission has decided to reject a proposal to make misogyny a hate crime, concluding that the move would not solve the “real problem” of hostility or prejudice directed against women because of their sex or gender. Instead, it recommends introducing a specific offence to tackle public sexual harassment, which it claims would be more effective.

In response, more than 20 leading women’s rights, hate crime organisations and campaigners such as Stella Creasy and Sue Fish (a former police officer) say it doesn’t address the failings of the judicial system. In a joint response to the commission’s report, campaigners said that many women would be left “disappointed and frustrated.” Shadow justice secretary, Steve Reed, argued that Labour’s plan to make misogyny a “specific form of hate crime” would allow prosecution of “anyone who targets women on the basis of who they are“.

One more encouraging sign may be found in the work of the charity, White Ribbon UK, which calls on all men to be prepared to speak out against sexist and misogynist behaviour. It isn’t enough for men to not be violent towards women – for there to be lasting change so that the violence stops, men need to take responsibility for helping to make that change happen. West England Bylines already raised this vital action back in April 2021.

To end all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls, comprehensive and multi-sectoral solutions are required. Crime prevention and criminal justice responses are a key part of this approach. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has also recently reported on the “Police response to violence against women and girls”, noting there are inconsistencies between forces in their use, and limited data to explain why this is the case, concluding that –

  • information recorded on case files to support this decision-making is often patchy, again limiting opportunities for forces to assure themselves that it is correct;
  • low use of evidence-led prosecutions means these alleged perpetrators are at liberty and may offend again;
  • some forces then exclude victims whose cases are closed, meaning another missed opportunity to check decision-making.

These are the recommendations the report made:

  • that the response to VAWG offences is an absolute priority for government, policing, the criminal justice system, and public-sector partnerships. This needs to be supported at a minimum by a relentless focus on these crimes, mandated responsibilities, and sufficient funding so that all partner agencies can work effectively as part of a whole-system approach to reduce and prevent the harms these offences are causing.
  • There needs to be an immediate upwards shift in the prioritisation of VAWG offences in policing. The report highlights the inconsistencies that still exist in the police response to violence against women; it confirms that a postcode lottery still exists for too many women who report sexual offences and abuse. Importantly it recognises the need for VAWG to be given a much higher profile and recommends that women who have experienced violence must be given ‘wrap-around, tailored support’. 

In conclusion, violence against women and girls is not inevitable, yet it is pervasive in our society.

Prevention is a key strategy: tackling the structures, institutions and attitudes which continue to perpetuate and enable VAWG, alongside properly funded, specialist support services that are available, sustained and accessible for every woman and girl who seeks them. More effort must be directed at bringing perpetrators to account.

The response must change from one that places the responsibility for survivors to manage their experiences of violence and abuse, to one which holds perpetrators accountable.

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