Ending violence against women and girls: a renewed commitment

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Photo by Chelsi Peter on Pexels.com


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Treating violence as a disease: can a public health approach succeed?

Knife crime, especially deaths of young people, has been making the headlines in recent weeks. And an approach which has a proven track record in Glasgow is now being adopted by the GLA, MOPAC and the Met police to try to tackle the growing levels of violence being seen on London’s streets. Learning from the experience in Glasgow, the police and other agencies are being encouraged to see violence as a public health issue, related to poverty, wellbeing and social deprivation and which, if identified and tackled early, can be prevented.

Contagion: a new way to think about violence

The Violence Reduction Unit was pioneered by Strathclyde Police (now part of Police Scotland), working with health and social care practitioners. Launched in 2005, the approach aims to make earlier identifications of those at risk of becoming involved in violence, and to take a more holistic view of the reasons for violence of all types. The long-term strategy looked at more social and wellbeing interventions to tackle gang violence in Glasgow, which at the time was among the worst in Europe.

The VRU in Glasgow took its inspiration from a scheme in Chicago, which sought to use a World Health Organisation (WHO) approach to tackling the spread of disease but applied it to communities in the hope of curbing the significant rise in homicides in the city. The approach was three-pronged: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms.

In addition to changing the approach to tackling violent crime, the VRU also used a multi-agency approach, involving social services, health care, housing and employment support, to give people a route out of violence and opportunities to find work or training opportunities. One of the key elements to ensuring the VRU is successful are the relationships these people build with individuals in communities.

Identifying young people at risk

Another important aspect of the VRU strategy is to intervene early to identify children and young people who are at risk of joining gangs or becoming involved in gang violence. Research supporting the creation of the VRU suggested that violence (like a cold) is spread from person to person within a community, that violence typically leads to more violence, and that one of the key identifying factors in someone becoming a perpetrator of violent crime is first being the victim of violent crime themselves.

In order to prevent this, staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.

There is also a broad view of what a culture of violence is. Work in schools focuses strongly on contemporary issues such as sexting, bullying and gender-based violence. It challenges the attitudes and beliefs that underpin such violence, and encourages young people to recognise and reject these.

A new approach to drug abuse too …?

In November 2018, the Scottish Government launched its new drug and alcohol strategy. One of the notable additions to the strategy was the acknowledgement that (like violence) drug abuse and addiction should be seen, not as a crime, but as a public health issue – an illness which people need support and treatment for.

Looking at how drug abuse is tackled within the criminal justice system and the interactions of addicts, policymakers have identified that many have had adverse childhood experiences, are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, and are also at significant risk of being unemployed and homeless.

Creating a holistic package of support which seeks to identify those at risk and directs them towards a range of services to tackle not just the addiction but other trauma or socioeconomic barriers earlier, will, in a similar way to the VRU, give people a sense of purpose and value, and help them to see an alternate route that will allow them to contribute positively to society and improve their own outcomes.

A new way to tackle social issues in the UK?

Tackling the spread of violence through communities is not an easy task, nor is breaking the cycle of crime that many find themselves trapped within, often as a result of family allegiances or geographic location. It is often the case that either you participate, or you become the next victim yourself. More and more young people are feeling the need to carry knives for protection, due to the high levels of fear of becoming a victim.

Identifying those young people who are at risk of turning towards a life of violence at the earliest possible stage is difficult, but has been shown to be effective in helping to tackle violent gang-related crime. Although it is not the only tactic available to police, used effectively in conjunction with other outreach programmes it can be an effective tool in preventative policing, helping to keep communities safe.

The outcome in Glasgow has been largely positive, following the roll out of the Violence Reduction Unit programme. Whether this approach has the same success in London, operating on a larger scale, with different economic and social variables, and in a very different budget climate, remains to be seen. In particular it is worth noting that the Glasgow approach recognised there were no quick fixes, and was based on long-term planning covering ten year periods.

It is to be hoped, though, that changing the way we think about violence within communities may offer a route to tackling it.


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The World Cup 2014 is great for many things but public health isn’t one of them

football and beer sign

Used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr (source)

by Steven McGinty

This month, the world’s attention has been unequivocally focused on Brazil, with the start of the 2014 World Cup. For many, the arrival of the #WorldCup has been four years in the waiting. However, for some, the potential negative consequences of the World Cup are of great concern.

Two of the main organisations to make their viewpoints known are Alcohol Concern and the BMJ. They both highlight that the increased consumption of alcohol will be damaging to public health, with increases both in alcohol related violence and emergency admissions. The medical evidence on irresponsible drinking seems clear enough, but the question is, what can be done to prevent this? Continue reading