The End Violence Against Women Coalition was set up ten years ago this week with the aim of making ourselves redundant in less time than that. We are a unique coalition of more than 60 women’s organisations all over the UK working to end all forms of violence against women and girls – sexual and domestic violence, FGM, forced marriage, trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sadly, a decade after we handed a ‘could do better’ report card to Tony Blair’s Downing Street, we are still here and our message is not very different.
When we launched in 2005 we highlighted the failure to stop Ian Huntley's predatory behaviour which allowed him to go on to murder Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – he had come to the attention of the police numerous times for suspected sexual offences but still been able to get a job in a school. Years later we see the same devastating mistakes made in the cases of Jamie Reynolds’ murder of Georgia Williams, and in Asher Maslin’s murder of Hollie Gazzard. In the intervening period, there have been multiple scandals, including the Jimmy Savile revelations which have exposed not just his behaviour and obvious confidence in his impunity, but also his abuse survivors’ reasons for not seeking justice. Multiple child sexual exploitation ‘grooming’ cases which were not previously making it to court have now been prosecuted. But still, we have catastrophic system failures in stopping violent men offending, and as a society we have not yet consciously set about trying to prevent abuse of women and girls.
We published a new report yesterday – ‘Where are we now?’ – which reviews the Government’s work over the last decade towards ending violence against women and girls. It’s really important that we give credit where it is due – there is now a strong policy framework on violence against women and girls in place, which is a huge leap on from a decade ago, and all credit should go to the politicians and civil servants who have worked with the women's sector to deliver this.
In addition, the CPS was the the first government agency to adopt a pioneering violence against women and girls strategy which has enabled significant changes in the prosecution of these crimes; Rape Crisis centres have received more support since 2010 than previously (although their funding situation is very precarious right now as no funding is agreed after March 2016); and action has been taken to implement some new regulation of harmful media images and the availability of online pornography. The law has been changed to recognise ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ as key to domestic violence, a critical step which we need to be vigilant on as it works itself through the system.
This work shows that the intention to make women and girls safe is there in Government, and at the general election this year was endorsed by all opposition parties. But the reality is that conflicting policies elsewhere undermine this intention constantly – localism, ‘austerity’ cuts and poor commissioning practices are decimating women’s support services at a time when more women than ever before are seeking help. Education policies fail to protect girls from abuse now and are not working towards the prevention of future abuse, as seen especially in the resistance to making Relationships & Sex Education compulsory. The most marginalised women, including women in prostitution and asylum seeking women, have very few rights to protection and support. Legal aid cuts threaten the safety of women and their families.
Our report author Holly Dustin said: 'There is huge demand from the public to put an end to these scandals. A society where women and girls are not safe is incompatible with a just and equal society.'
And, we have a five-point prescription for how Government should go about a renewed drive to end violence against women and girls. It is time for a law which guarantees that survivors of abuse can access a support service whenever they need it; we need to seriously step up policy and practice to prevent violence in the first place, especially via compulsory sex and relationships education in our schools; we need consistent regulation of harmful media images; we need a coherent approach to tackling violence against women and girls overseas; and local councils should be required to develop violence against women and girls strategies.
Our Coalition was founded on a very simple and basic belief – that violence against women and girls is not inevitable. And, political leadership which makes a priority of eradicating it will succeed.
Sarah Green is the Acting Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition