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The Paradox of Men in Power Shaping Responses to Violence Against Women and Girls

11/09/2014 11:19 BST | Updated 10/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The independent inquiry into the Rotherham abuse case has found that approximately 1400 children (predominantly girls) were sexually exploited over a sixteen year period, from 1997 to 2013. These children experienced horrific abuse; raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. More than a third of the children were already known to the authorities, known to be at risk of harm.

The report has demonstrated collective failings on the part of social care services, police, and political leadership; as the situation was well known but disregarded or worse, actively covered up. Survivors have reported that across the board they were ignored or disbelieved, one woman reported that police asked her 'well, what do you expect?'. The failing of public bodies to implement their statutory duty is not due to process - the laws and the mechanisms are in place - they are a cultural issue of indifference towards violence against women and girls. The role of institutions, in this case, is that of aiding and abetting.

Rotherham is yet another instance in an ongoing string of high profile cases that demonstrate the ingrained prevalence of violence towards women and girls. Despite the obvious nature of violence as being institutional, the media, politicians, and the public consciousness is reluctant to raise questions or make changes at the institutional level. Jimmy Saville has died, Rolf Harris has been convicted, the men of the Whitehall scandal are no longer in positions of power. The terminology, time and again, is specific to the individual case and is in the past tense.

The Rotherham case is no exception to this rule, although it takes on an additional element, as there has been a media rush to allocate this as a race issue, with headlines including:

"Grooming trial: Asian grooming gangs, the uncomfortable issue

The issue of predominantly Pakistani men seeking out under-age white girls for sex is perhaps the most uncomfortable to face British society for generations" - The Telegraph

We have seen this before, in cases in Rochdale and Oxford, where race and religion have been seized upon as an explanation, despite the obvious prevalence of violence against women and girls in proportionate scale across race, class, and religion. Racialising this case is a distancing exercise, whether conscious or unconscious, allowing us to 'other' the issue - making it about other, individual, men rather than about our collective enactment of social values that subjugate women, eventuating in violence. Therefore, as each case passes, much fuss is made, but no institutional change transpires. Change is predicated on political will; in this case to recognise and act upon the patriarchal supremacy that sees consistent violence against women and girls, statutory failings that perpetuate it, and political indifference that negates responsibility for addressing it. But political will is always empty rhetoric; for if the problem is of male power over women, then how will men in power ever recognise the issue and work against their own interests to remedy the patriarchy from which they benefit?

In a practical sense, no single remedy can address this endemic issue. Instead a range of solutions, constituting a holistic approach, are required. Firstly, a truly independent inquiry should be commissioned - one which is not led by any of the institutions implicated in the case, and further not implemented by a high profile man or men.

Secondly, it is imperative that we seek to redress the centuries of oppression that has manifested itself into a macho culture within our public institutions, with a minute ratio of women holding office. Positive discrimination need not be a dirty word; the Labour Party has enacted all-women shortlists with great success. All public bodies must lead the way in developing innovative methods to recruit, retain, and promote women and people of colour. A proportionate male to female ratio, however, will not be sufficient to overturn the entrenched attitudes of the 'old boys club'. It is important that those working in public service receive considerable, in depth equalities training. This must be more than a tick box exercise; it must call into question the value systems of those people, both individually and collectively.

Additionally, it is important that we look to the next generation of young people and their understanding of oppression, we need an overhaul of the education system that frames all teaching within a culture of respect for difference; teaching the historical and theoretical perspectives of race, gender, and class.

Finally, it is vitally important that investment into specialist voluntary and community organisations is prioritised. In the UK, austerity measures have crippled the charity sector that delivers services to the most marginalised in our society; the 'safety net' where statutory services fail. Those who do the work on the ground are incapable of dealing with the growing demand for services, forced to turn away women and children in need. Transformative change cannot be a purely top down, legalistic approach. Rather, the 'safety net' is a radical space in which women and girls can challenge the oppression of violence and sexual abuse - even through the simple fact of their collective survival. Without it, only those in power - the heads of the police, of social services, and the political leadership - shape responses to violence against women and girls. As this paradox endures, so will the permanence of violence against women and girls.