A Statement from Labour Women’s Declaration Working Group on the Labour Party’s Green Paper ‘Ending Violence to Women and Girls’.
There is much to be welcomed in this paper and we are heartened to see the Party developing a holistic and potentially effective response to the prevalence of Male Violence Against Women and Girls in our society and share the condemnation of successive Tory governments who have failed to address these serious issues and their undermining of support services.
Women are demanding action to stop the epidemic of rape, male violence and abuse targeted at women and girls and it is vital that the Labour Party should respond to the outpouring of anger and demands for action not from a minority, but on behalf of more than half the population. The issue, which is in fact, a number of issues, has been treated as though it was a marginal, almost inevitable part of our communities and we welcome the emphasis on prioritising action against such violence and harassment and to holding to account governments and institutions that should play a significant part in prevention and the provision of appropriate responses and services.
We hope that our comments below will be seen as helpful in contributing to an effective strategy.
- The voluntary sector of refuges, support and counselling services was developed largely by women for women. It has many years of experience in developing appropriate and safe, well-used services for women. This sector, as the paper points out, has been underfunded and run down by successive Tory governments. Valuable expertise has been lost by a competitive tendering system which has all too often awarded contracts to commercial operators. As well as a commitment to put in place long-term, secure funding, and increasing provision to meet the growing need, the party needs to extend its manifesto commitment into an explicit policy to support the provision of single-sex as well as other specialist services. These services, of necessity, centre the needs of women and girls. Women need and have a right to choose safe services which are often provided by other women who have had similar experiences and understand the best ways to support one another during some of the most difficult times of their lives, from escaping the violence itself to taking their cases through the justice system. The Party’s current manifesto contains a commitment to supporting single-sex services and widening the use and understanding of provisions in the Equality Act 2010. The voluntary sector in this area of work, which has been built up over the last 50 years, needs to be valued, supported and given secure, committed, long-term funding and we would like to see a specific commitment to engaging the existing sector, learning from its experience and further extending single-sex services that form the basis of the services which have been developed in response to informed community action. Other specialist services can be provided to meet the needs of other groups, as the paper asserts and we welcome the intention to support refuges and specific services for minoritized women.
- With regard to specialist services, however, we think that using the acronym LGBT+ only serves to obscure the different groups that are meant to be covered. The needs of lesbians, for example, may well be better served by single sex provision for women rather than a LGBT+ oriented provision. Such assumptions may preclude appropriate consultation and the acknowledgement of specific needs and preferences.
- Links between what have historically been considered ‘low level’ forms of harassment and abuse and the escalation to increasingly violent offences are now very clear, and the paper acknowledges this. Policies need to develop a Zero Tolerance approach which understands those links and which takes relatively ‘low level’ incidents seriously. We welcome the intention behind criminalising street harassment in this context, tho we are concerned that, given the current lack of prosecution of even crimes such as rape, and the limited police and criminal justice resources how this would work in practice. The prevalence of such events are shockingly clear in the statistics quoted in the paper, and we consider much greater efforts to change the misogynistic aspects of our culture and preventative work are likely to be more effective. It is very clear that legislating does not mean effectively tackling and we have similar reservations about making misogyny a hate crime. Specifically, the inclusion of gender alongside sex means that the focus on a sex specific crime is lost. Gender (although undefined in the Green Paper) refers to socially constructed roles and behaviour whereas violence against women and girls, by men, is undeniably experienced on the basis of sex. We consider that the needs of women and girls in the face of an epidemic of male violence must be centred, prioritised and unambiguous and that if the intention was to put in place measures to address violence towards gender non-conforming or gender variant people (transphobia is already recognised within hate crime provisions) then a different set of considerations and recommendations would come into play. The scale and prevalence of men’s violence to women and its entrenched nature means that only highly specific measures are likely to be effective and the seriousness of the problem merits a focused and specific approach. The merging of two very different categories, one of which is not defined in law, should not be allowed to muddy the waters or lead to misunderstanding.
- Similarly, the separation of ‘domestic’ violence from violence experienced in other contexts needs to end. It has been shown that committing acts of domestic violence is also an indicator of the potential for acts of terror. Many men found guilty of rape and sex-based crimes also have a record of domestic abuse – violence to women is a continuum which arises from a wider environment of sexism and the social acceptance of such acts and the attitudes which give rise to them and any strategy needs to be based on this holistic understanding.
- In regard to prevention, the largest and most significant omission from the paper is any strategy for tackling pornography. The huge increase in the use of pornography and its explicitly violent and misogynistic content contributes to the misogynistic, hostile environment in which such violence thrives. Violent content has become one of the most searched for categories of porn. Its widespread use has contributed to the normalisation of all forms of violence to women and children and the failure to address this problem is the elephant in the room. Porn is now easily available to many children. The shocking levels of sexual abuse of girls in schools and the highest ever levels of depression and self-harm now found amongst girls and young women must be seen as red flags. What sort of society are we allowing to thrive? We cannot tackle violence and abuse perpetrated on one sex principally by the other without taking measures to radically alter not only the education system but the wider environment in which our children grow up and where they fail to learn mutual respect. At the very least, the availability of online pornography to children and young people should form part of this strategy. But serious consideration needs also to be given to tackling the normalisation of violence via porn, the objectification of women and girls and the very real harms that are the consequences. The social costs of allowing violent porn to be freely available are many and extensive. This area should form the basis for a serious strategy of intervention.
- Institutions such as the police and those involved in the criminal justice system have been shown to tolerate a culture of disrespect for women and consequently a failure to take violence to women seriously. We welcome the intention to train and inform those involved in this work. The toleration and acceptance of MVAWG would seem extraordinary if applied to other crimes. We would also like to see a commitment to encouraging far more women into senior positions within these institutions.
- We do not know who was consulted in the preparation of the green paper, but women’s organisations that have been working in the field over many years must be consulted as an explicit part of policy development in all areas of this work. Arising from the activism of previous generations of women, the relevant voluntary sector has a great deal of experience of interventions and policy initiatives from interagency working, to training of police and the judiciary, to Zero Tolerance media campaigns. This expertise is much needed, both on the causes of male violence, effective responses, and best practice in supporting women and may well help in not ‘reinventing the wheel’.
- The sector currently uses the term Male Violence Against Women and Girls, and we believe that is helpful in naming the nature of the problem we are all facing. We welcome the paper’s intention to also consider the education and behaviour of boys and men, rather than the all too often assumption that this is a ‘women’s issue’. But we would suggest that using MVAWG aids in that project. Women are not the only victims of male violence, but overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence and abuse to women are men.
- The statistics used in the Green Paper show the need for this work in stark and unequivocal terms. We think that this would not have been possible without the collection of data on the basis of sex. We think the paper should carry a commitment to ensuring that crime statistics are collected on the basis of sex, not gender which confuses the picture and makes it impossible to isolate and highlight the effects on women and girls. Additional information can also be collected, but the basic information on sex is not optional but entirely necessary in charting the nature and extent of men’s violence to women.
We agree that the right to live in peace and safety is a fundamental human right not currently enjoyed by girls and women, half of our communities. The Labour Party must develop a comprehensive and holistic approach which recognises the sex-specific dynamics involved and which seeks not only to provide support to victims but which addresses the root causes and does not shirk these critical issues. We owe it to women. And it is urgent.
Labour Women’s Declaration Working Group