On Friday, ahead of the on International Day of the Girl on Saturday, I took part in Plan UK's 'Face Up to Violence' campaign in Waterloo station from 10am -7pm. Members of the public, politicians and celebrities wrote messages against violence on their faces - where it cannot be ignored - and submitting the photos online. This is ahead of the launch of Plan UK's report Pathways to Power: Creating Sustainable Change for Adolescent Girls on Tuesday evening next week.
Somewhere in the world, at this very moment, someone is being forced into a marriage, someone is being subjected to FGM, someone is being raped and abused, someone is being trafficked, someone is being denied an education, or the freedom to do and say what they want. That someone is likely to be a girl, and it is happening because she is a girl.
Saturday is the third annual International Day of the Girl, established by the United Nations in 2012 to raise awareness of the inequality faced by girls across the globe. The theme this year is "Empowering adolescent girls: ending the cycle of violence". This a positive and vital message in the face of ongoing challenges, and our stand on this as a nation will make a big difference to the lives of young girls abroad as well as in the UK.
However, we know that despite the increased international focus on the lives of girls, and progress being made, the picture remains grim. Gender inequalities in terms of power are deeply entrenched and it will take sustained effort to shift public attitudes. This is not least in the sphere of violence against women and girls. Take female genital mutilation (FGM) - with a global campaign to End FGM also being launched by the completely inspiring Nimko Ali and others. FGM sadly remains a widely accepted cultural practice, but the seeds of change are growing. Take also the issue of forced marriage - often associated with South Asian communities. And human trafficking. Across the world we see gang-masters promising girls and their families in poor and marginalised communities a better life, with those girls then trafficked into sexual slavery. Their destination could well be around the corner from where any of us live. One of the most harrowing practices is the use of rape as a weapon of war. In the UK, we have also seen a variant of this practice in gang culture with the rape of girls increasingly commonplace. This year has seen the horrors of child sexual exploitation exposed on a huge scale leading to Labour renewing calls for a national enquiry into child sex abuse.
In Britain we have seen violence against girls often starting at a younger age - one mum wrote to me recently with a shocking story of what happened to her six year old girl at the hands of other boys in her school. It started with bullying when she stood up to them to defend a friend, and progressed to tearing her clothes and touching her. The school did little to prevent it and the young girl was forced to move school. Teenage girls and young women are now the most likely group to be victims of domestic violence in the UK, thousands of girls are at risk of FGM and the NUS report a growing number of sexual assaults at university.
Such matters are going to take much more than the law to address, but the biggest changes will come when politics keeps these issues more centre stage. That's why I'm so proud that the Labour Party has made stopping violence against women and girls a key priority for our programme for Government. Earlier this year, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper MP announced that a Labour Government would bring in new legislation to give better support to victims of violence and bring perpetrators to justice. Some of the measures we would propose are:
- Introducing a new Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence to sit at the heart of Government and ensure victims voices are being heard
- New national standards for policing to drive up performance across the board
- Introducing compulsory sex AND relationship education in all state-funded schools, so young people are taught that no form of violence in relationships is acceptable
- A new £3million annual fund for refuges supporting victims of domestic violence
- New FGM Protection Orders to stop children suspected of being at risk of FGM from being taken abroad
I hope everyone will do something to mark International Day of the Girl and send a positive message to girls across the world that in the future they won't face discrimination because of their gender and will not need to fear violence will be used against them. International Day of the Girl is an important moment where we can stand side-by-side with women and girls across the world and say: "We will not stand for this. We want change too."