Instances of reported violence and misogyny against women and girls are rising. The high profile murders of Zara Aleena, Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Maria Rawlings, Sabina Nessa and Ashling Murphy have again raised questions about what can be done to tackle the rising incidence of violence against women and girls.
Violence against women and girls, as set out by the United Nations, is any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
More broadly, the agenda around tackling violence against women and girls seeks to tackle more inherent and systemic attitudes towards women and girls, their “roles” in society and the actions, of both men and women, which further entrench the gender biases that women and girls experience on a regular basis.
Under-reporting and challenging everyday behaviours
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that across the UK, 22% of women report having been a victim of sexual assault. In addition,14% of women aged 16 to 19, and 10% of women aged 20 to 24 say they have been a victim of domestic abuse. Research by UN Women UK has also found that 71% of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, with this number increasing even further to 86% among women aged 18–24.
However, the prosecution rates for crimes associated with VAWAG, such as rape or domestic abuse are low, and there is a general consensus that more needs to be done within criminal justice to try and improve confidence in the system.
Under-reporting of harassment is also extremely common and for that reason, even the research which is conducted, will often not capture the full scale of the issue. Looking at dis aggregated data is also important. Research shows that LGBTQ+ and minority ethnic women and girls’ experiences tend to be even worse than those of their straight, white counterparts, but their experiences, and the disproportionate impact these have are not always accurately reflected in research.
A renewed commitment to women and girls
In 2022 the Scottish Government published Misogyny: a human rights issue? The report outlines the findings of the Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice and explores misogyny as a human rights issue in Scotland, and the ways in which current legal protections around misogyny can be improved.
The recommendations set out by the Scottish Government commission seek to place Scotland as a world leader in the fight to tackle misogyny and improve the experiences of women and girls. In October 2021 the “Don’t Be That Guy” public awareness campaign was also launched, which called on men to interrogate their own and their peers’ behaviour towards women.
The Mayor of London has also published a refreshed Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy (June 2022) which sets our his ambition to eradicate VAWAG in London and for every woman to be able to participate fully in life across the city. The Mayor of London also recently launched a new campaign which focused on
“addressing the sexist attitudes and inappropriate behaviours exhibited by some men, in order to tackle the epidemic of misogyny and violence towards women and girls”.
It is hoped that, along with the night-time charter and Violence Against Women and Girls strategies which have been well received by businesses in London since their respective launches, that the combined efforts will make it easier for people to report sexual harassment and violence in London and also help make the city a safer and more enjoyable place for people to work and spend time.
Other sectors are also becoming increasingly aware of their responsibilities in trying to drive change in attitudes towards women and make spaces easier and safer for them to navigate. The RTPI published a report in 2021 which looked at the importance of gender based design, not only from the specific perspective of the built environment, but how design of spaces and environments can also inform other behaviours and attitudes and contribute to wider factors such as health, employment, leisure time or the accessibility of services for women and girls.
Misogyny: a human rights issue?
Research conducted by the Scottish Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice, and more broadly by those working across gender equality highlights that there are several laws (in Scotland and in other countries) that are capable of being applied to misogynistic behaviours. However, there is what they describe as a “critical gap” in the implementation and application of these laws to violence against women in public and private spaces.
The development of a specific offence in relation to misogyny aims to both meet the gap in terms of legislation to prosecute, but also to raise the visibility of such offences, not only to improve rates of reporting, but also to encourage police and prosecutors to take offences of this nature more seriously. The working group have also suggested a change to the approach to violence against women and misogyny more generally, treating it as a human rights issue, as well as a specific criminal offence.
Another approach changing the way we are thinking about VAWAG is adopting a public health, whole system approach to VAWAG. This approach places an emphasis on education and partnership working across multiple disciplines and sectors and focuses on prevention as a key tool in tackling what has been called the “endemic” VAWAG which exists within our communities.
One of the biggest challenges to policymakers and service providers of this type of approach will be evidencing impact, and creating robust and thorough processes for evaluation, particularly when multiple partners are involved in delivery.
Tackling violence against women and girls is about far more than tackling individual instances of crime and abuse, but rather about wider perceptions and attitudes, and the ability of women to live, work and interact in public and private spaces freely and without fear.
In Scotland, legislators hope that the findings of the working group will be the first step on a journey which will see Scotland become among the most progressive nations when it comes to legislating to protect against VAWAG.
For women and girls, it remains to be seen if the steps and actions proposed actually have any impact on promoting meaningful changes to attitudes and behaviours towards women and make our communities and public spaces more equitable and safe for everyone to live and contribute to their fullest potential.
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