Violence against women is not inevitable. If the Government wants to 'win back' women voters, it should start by putting female experiences and concerns at the heart of policy making
The recently leaked Downing Street memo on plans to address falling support for the Coalition among women voters, plus David Cameron's 'apology' to women for perceived sexist remarks in the House of Commons, indicate a growing awareness in Government that it cannot take women's support for their policies for granted.
A broad consensus is building over the fact that public sector spending cuts are disproportionately affecting women, and yet the Government is merely tinkering at the edges with concessions on childcare costs for some, for example, - rather than looking at more comprehensive policy changes that need to be made across the board.
For a start, we are failing to tackle huge problem of violence against women and girls with anything like the urgency or seriousness that it deserves. The alarming facts and figures, which I raised with MPs in my Westminster Hall debate on the issue this week, really speak for themselves.
Nationally, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. It's thought that two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner, while an estimated 60,000 women are raped every year. Gendered crimes such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation have for too long been left unaddressed or seen as a 'community' issue.
Last year in Brighton and Hove, home to my constituency, 277 people 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.
In this context, I welcome the recognition in the Home Office strategy, Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls, of the need for a targeted approach to tackling the ongoing scandal of gendered violence. Historically, the approach by governments 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. There has been little investment in work to prevent violence in the first place.
The Domestic Violence team at Brighton and Hove City Council, whose intelligent commissioning programme is recognised as good practice, tell me that there is still no allocated funding for prevention and early intervention of violence against women in the Government's strategy. All the money remains earmarked for crisis work, with limited attention given to addressing the cause of the problem - perpetrators' behaviour.
In the Westminster Hall debate, I called for schools to play a far greater role in providing a forum for this preventative work. Young people in Britain have alarmingly tolerant attitudes to violence against women. An NSPCC study found almost half (43%) 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.
Whilst there has been an increased focus on other forms of bullying, many schools fail to recognise that unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment and sexual name calling are specific forms of abuse which girls suffer routinely. Girls from ethnic minority backgrounds may face additional risks. The Home Affairs Committee recently reported that schools are failing to respond to girls at risk of forced marriage too, and may even be putting female students in greater danger. Young women affected by gang-related violence may experience further abuse in male-dominated environments such as Pupil Referral Units.
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 challenge attitudes. Drama education charity Tender, for example, which takes actors, film makers and designers into schools in London to help young people put on their own drama performances to raise issues around domestic and sexual violence - or EVAW, which has produced a short, hard hitting film, We Are Man, targeting young men's perception of rape and sexual harassment.
In Brighton and Hove, local charity RISE delivers a PSHE (Personal Social Health and Economic) preventative education programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city. They are also working to integrate the Women's Aid " Expect Respect " programme into work currently taking place in primary schools.
The Home Office itself is currently running a campaign, This is Abuse, aimed at addressing teenage relationship abuse. But work to prevent violence against women and girls cannot be left to occasional campaigns or women's organisations working in partnership with good schools where they can. It must be integral to our education policy - and should be delivered in every school.
Unfortunately, the Department for Education is dragging its feet. With no clear lead on violence against women and girls in the Department, and Ministers signalling that these issues should remain outside of the statutory curriculum and therefore down to the discretion of increasingly autonomous schools, there is a gap in policy. A commitment to teaching sexual consent in PSHE education is welcome, but does not go far enough in addressing the breadth of the issue across the whole school. Furthermore, cuts to specialist posts at local level who could lead prevention work, such as Domestic Violence Coordinators and Teenage Pregnancy Coordinators, risk exacerbating the problem.
In the report, A Different World is Possible, EVAW sets out a series of concrete actions for schools, councils and central government to start work to prevent abuse of women and girls so that it isn't a problem we're still talking about in generations to come. It recommends a 'whole school approach' where Heads take a lead, teachers are trained on the issues, and all students receive comprehensive sex and relationships education which deals with consent, equality and respect. In a nutshell, Education Secretary Michael Gove must make violence against girls in schools a national priority.
It's clear that we must also do more to empower young people to cope with the sexual images they are bombarded with everyday - so the Prime Minister's announcement 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. However, it's important that any strategy goes beyond consumer and parent power and includes young people from the outset.
Overall, far greater action is needed to make our schools safer for girls, enable young men to challenge their peers, and change attitudes that blame women for violence. This would make a huge difference to all our futures - and some female and male voters might begin to believe that this Government does have critical real life issues on its agenda.
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