Today is Day of the Girl. A chance to celebrate girls’ achievements and work together to overcome the challenges they face today and in adulthood. And we know all too well the challenges they might face: with #MeToo continuing to expose abuses of power and the Senate hearing demonstrating the challenges in being heard, being believed and crucially – getting justice.
Today, like every day, roughly 250 girls will be born in the UK who will go on to experience abuse from an intimate partner. This is an unacceptable statistic. If we don’t curb abusive behaviour towards girls and women we are simply waiting for those 250 baby girls to become the adult victims of the future.
The 250 figure multiplies rapidly as girls get older. In total, there are 1.5million girls (0-15 year olds who will experience abuse from a partner as adults - the vast majority from a man). We rightly focus attention on harassment in the street or those who abuse power in a work environment: we need to raise awareness and act just as urgently for the abuse that continues behind closed doors, too. This is not just about men and boys we know, this is about men and boys we love.
We are currently playing a waiting game and it has to stop. We wait for these girls to become adults, we wait for them to form abusive relationships, we wait for those relationships to become dangerous – for the police to be called, courts to be involved, for their own children to feel the full impact of living with abuse – and then we try to help. We don’t want to wait any longer. We want to stop it from happening in the first place.
Preventive work is often met with suspicion. So what should we do?
First, we need a well-evidenced, well-coordinated response to those most at risk of using abuse. Violence Against Women and Girls – or VAWG – is a squeamish term. It avoids naming the most common factor in abusive situations - an abusive boy or man. Boys are more likely to harm others and to harm themselves, and are also less likely to talk about it unless they’re given safe, appropriate opportunities to do so. We urge the Government, through its upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, to look not only at services and responses for those who have already harmed one or several people, but also those who are on the fringes, showing early signs that they might become abusive. Behaviour is much harder to change once it’s become embedded.
Second, we need to change our broader response and stop treating people as a set of issues to be fixed. We must see the whole person in their individual context. This could be their identity – age, sexuality or home environment, this could their mental wellbeing, previous experiences of trauma or harm, or the ability to access resources. All this affects their ability to stay safe and reduce opportunities for them to be abused by someone in their life. Yet we deal with these aspects of people separately, as if someone’s mental health sits in one place and their personal relationships somewhere else entirely. Young people who grow up around abuse can experience serious, long-term impact: from speech impediments, to eating disorders, to being abused or being abusive in their later life themselves. We must understand the abuse they experience as children, and the implications, and then offer a response that takes into account all these many experiences and factors at the same time.
Third, to stop abuse before it starts, we need a zero-tolerance public attitude towards it. There can be no bystanders any longer. Domestic abuse is not a private business, it’s a public health epidemic and it must be treated as such. Public awareness efforts should not be left to charities alone, relying on public donations to put out campaigns to shift our thinking. We call on the government to invest in properly funded nationwide awareness work that will help people identify abuse, and what they - we – can do if we think we know a victim, or a perpetrator. The time for hushed private concern is over, we need to speak out and show young boys and girls that this behaviour is unacceptable and will be called out.
Resources are tight. It can feel like we are firefighting, trying to hold this problem still and stop it getting worse. But surely we want a country in which fewer children become victims in the first place. To do this, we need fewer opportunities for abuse to happen. For the sake of the 250 girls born today, for the sake of the millions more who are currently living with abuse or will do in the future – if we act quickly, if we change our response and understanding, if we invest in innovation and evidence – we will save so much later.
Suzanne Jacob is chief executive of SafeLives. For more information, about how SafeLives will endeavour to stop abuse before it starts safelives.org.uk
- Refuge- Domestic violence help for women and children - 0808 2000 247
- Visit Women’s Aid- support for abused women and children – or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
- Broken Rainbow- The LGBT domestic violence charity - 0845 2 60 55 60
- Men’s Advice Linefor advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse - 0808 801 0327