by Karen Ingala Smith
On the 25 November 2010, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Coalition Government launched the Call to End Violence against Women and Girls, just over six months after it had come in to power. It was followed in March 2011 by an action plan comprising 88 supporting actions for taking the strategy forward. In the foreword, the Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged:
“The causes and consequences of violence against women and girls are complex. For too long government has focused on violence against women and girls as a criminal justice issue”
and went on to say that prevention would be at the heart of the government’s approach, along with working with families and communities to change attitudes. Lynne Featherstone, then the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities and Criminal Information added that
“This suffering is a form of gender inequality and it is wrong”.
It almost sounds like we have a government that is ready to recognise that violence against women and girls is both a consequence and cause of inequality between women and men. The problem is, despite Theresa May’s assurances, the government seems to be wilfully ignoring many of the ways that they could address violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System.
Starting with the cuts that followed the comprehensive saving review, the austerity package has hit women hardest. Data from the Women’s Budget Group revealed
- Of the welfare savings (cuts) 74% came from the pockets of women.
- Two-thirds of those who have lost jobs in councils and schools since May 2010 were women, in 19 English local authorities, 100% of the jobs that were lost were women’s jobs
- For the first time in decades, the pay gap between women and men has stopped decreasing and started increasing.
The Universal Credit scheme, the government’s next big step in welfare reform, is scheduled to start in October 2013. The government says it’s about fairness, about making work pay and making the welfare system simpler by providing a single monthly payment for those in receipt of benefits. Where a couple are claiming, benefits will paid jointly to just one of them. This is despite the finding, in the British Crime Survey 2004, that 41% of women who’ve experienced domestic force have also suffered financial abuse. Where women are in receipt of benefits and in violent relationships, perpetrators are being mandated to have increased control over finances.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t appear to extend to personal finances.
Lynne Featherstone has spoken about her outrage at the pressure for women to look a certain way; that she can see how body image affects women’s confidence and even goes as far as saying that it can be a kind of violence against women. She went on to say “There’s obviously sometimes a good rationale for plastic surgery. When you’ve had five children and your breasts are hanging round your waist and it’s affecting your life, then I wouldn’t really have a problem with women getting that sorted”. Try as I might, I cannot see how identifying the effects of feeding babies on a woman’s body as a good rationale for surgery are anything other than misogynistic. She has also said of herself, “I have the power of all middle aged women, the power to nag” “I have the powers of high level nagging”.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t appear to extend to addressing the pressure on women to conform to patriarchal beauty standards or avoiding descriptions of women’s contribution to politics that conform to negative gender stereotypes.
Nadine Dorries has been busily trying her best to erode abortion rights, to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks, a measure which is reported to be supported by Theresa May, Maria Miller and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Yet in 2011, 91% of abortions took place before 13 weeks and the number of abortions post-13 weeks has been steadily declining since 2008. There are bigger issues in reproductive health care that need attention, such as reproductive violence, access to contraception and improving access to early abortion.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t appear to extend to considering the impact of reproductive violence or an attack on women’s bodily autonomy.
Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women and Equalities has recently set out plans for a ‘Guide for Girls’ information pack to help parents bring up ‘aspirational young women’. The aim is to help girls ‘realise their potential’ in response to concerns raised by the Women’s Business Council, including the fact that the number of female chief executives in the FTSE 100 has fallen to just three in the past year.
“Making sure women can be successful at work and in business is essential if we want a strong economy. Encouraging women to fulfil their potential doesn’t begin when they are already working; it starts when they are young, still at school. A vital part of future career success is the aspirations that girls have early in their lives, and the choices they make about subjects and qualifications.
“Parents are vital in helping girls make these choices, and we know that many parents want help with that. This campaign will give parents the knowledge and confidence they need to make sure that their daughters make choices which will help them realise their ambitions.”
Yet since the Coalition Government came to power, more than 400 Sure Start children’s centres have closed and more than a third (£430m) has been cut from Sure Start government funding between 2010-11 and 2012-13. Sure Start was launched in 1998 with the aim of “giving children the best possible start in life”. In the first year of the Coalition Government an additional 300,000 children were plunged into poverty. The British Crime Survey has identified poverty as a risk factor to some forms or domestic and sexual violence. Poverty is a strong predictor of low educational performance. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrated that disadvantaged children are more likely to be reluctant recipients of the taught curriculum, influencing different attitudes to education at primary school that help shape their future and their future aspirations. It may be a cynical position but it does not seem likely that the target audience of Maria Miller’s ‘Guide for Girls’ is parents living in poverty.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t extend to addressing the educational attainment of girls raised in poverty.
Also this month, Labour proposed an amendment to Clause 20 of the Children and Families Bill to make relationships and sex education a mandatory part of the school curriculum. This seems wholly consistent with Theresa May’s stated aim of increasing the focus on prevention and working to change attitudes – for example the attitudes of the 43% of young people who agree that it’s acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive under certain circumstances. Yet all but two members of the government, including Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone, voted against the proposal.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t extend to the full potential of the school curriculum to be a force for attitudinal change.
One of the steps that the Coalition Government has introduced to tackle domestic violence is The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, or Clare’s Law, that enables people to ask the police if their partner has a history of domestic violence.
It was created following a campaign by the family of Clare Wood, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, George Appleton, in 2009. A pilot is currently being run in Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, Nottingham and Gwent. Greater Manchester police revealed that approximately half of the requests they receive result in the disclosure of information whilst Wiltshire police have revealed that they received 10 applications in one week alone. Whilst the principle of allowing women access to information held by the state about violent men is welcome, there remain questions, these include how a woman may be judged in the light of actions that she takes or doesn’t take if she is informed of a man’s violent past. There is a huge potential for shifting the culpability for violence back on to the victim and for agencies to absolve themselves of their responsibility – after all, she knew about him and didn’t leave. There is also the question of whether women will be held responsible for harm that a violent perpetrator does to children, after all – she knew about him and didn’t leave. There is also the matter of access to specialist support which is vital for women, whether or not they find out that a man has a history of violence. Those that are told that there is no history on record have surely asked for information because they have legitimate reason to feel concerned. We know that most domestic violence is not reported. “No history on record” is not the same as “no history” or “no risk”.
Theresa May said at the launch of The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme: “Domestic violence is a dreadful crime which sees two women a week die at the hands of their partners and millions more suffer years of abuse in their own homes. That is why we are constantly looking at new ways of protecting victims.” I welcome this what about the full range of wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System?
And what of the specialist services, the ones that support women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence? A Freedom of Information request to 152 local authorities found that of the 101 councils that responded, there had been cuts of £5.6m to services including refuges, domestic violence advocates, victim support centres and centres for women who have been raped or sexually assaulted between 2009/10 and 2012/13. Remaining services are increasingly subject to competitive tendering, with contracts frequently awarded to organisations that are not specialists, that are not run from woman centered perspectives but that are chasing business and able to make low-cost bids.
The wider measures to end violence against women and girls outside the Criminal Justice System don’t extend to maintaining and extending specialist service provision. Until we see effective steps being taken that actually do result in a decrease in male violence against women and girls, cuts to services speak louder than empty promises. The Home Secretary was right, for too long successive governments have focused on violence against women and girls as a criminal justice issue if they have focused on it at all. If the Coalition knows that a wider approach is needed, its actions and inactions belie a commitment to reduce the harm to women and girls through male violence.
Karen Ingala Smith has worked in non-government organisations for over 20 years and has specialised in the women’s sector and services for victim/survivors of violence against women throughout this time. Her career has included frontline service delivery, management, senior management and governance. Karen’s blog can be found here