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Violence against women: enough is enough

18 March 2022

Almost a year on from the murder of Sarah Everard, asks journalist Juliette Astrup, how can CPs respond to violence against women and girls?

The horrifying kidnap, rape and murder in London of 33-year-old Sarah Everard in March 2021 at the hands of a serving police officer sent shockwaves through the country, prompting protests and widespread calls for change.

And in January 2022, the murder of another young woman, 23-year-old teacher Ashling Murphy – attacked while out for an afternoon run in County Offaly, Ireland – again saw a shared sense of grief and outrage sweep the two nations.

These terrible crimes reflect a deep problem of violence against women and girls (VAWG), but amid a rising tide of public anger, and with the political spotlight now turned towards it, is this a watershed moment?

The scale of the problem

The End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW) presents a shocking picture of the prevalence of VAWG: a woman is killed by a man every three days on average in the UK; almost a third of women aged 16 to 59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime in England and Wales; and 97% of women in the UK aged 18 to 24 have experienced some form of harassment in public (EVAW, 2022).

Intimate partner violence is the most prevalent form (see Domestic violence: the shadow pandemic, below). As well as abuse and harassment, violence against women encompasses female genital mutilation, forced marriage, trafficking and, more recently, abuse in online spaces.

The legacy of VAWG is long-lasting, with recent analysis finding that 63% of rape victims reported mental or emotional problems and 10% had tried to kill themselves, while 89% of women in Great Britain who had experienced harassment said they felt ‘very or fairly unsafe’ walking on their own after dark in a park or other open space (Office for National Statistics [ONS], 2021a).

Safety advice or victim blaming?

After the death of Sarah Everard, a debate followed on how women can stay safe, with common advice such as ‘don’t go out alone’ or ‘don’t go out after dark’ criticised as victim blaming – putting the onus on women to modify their behaviour, rather than focusing on men’s actions.

North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott, for example, sparked outrage and was forced to resign when he said women need to be ‘streetwise’ and should understand the process of being arrested – remarks made after the sentencing of Wayne Couzens (the police officer who falsely arrested and murdered Sarah Everard).

Meanwhile, 888 – BT’s idea for a GPS tracking service for lone women walking home, which would trigger an alert if they did not reach their destination on time – was well received by some, but also criticised as another example of putting the responsibility for avoiding violence onto women.

‘Too often, we see concerns about male violence translate into women and girls being burdened with additional safety work to protect themselves: carrying our keys in our hands, sharing our location with friends,’ says Andrea Simon, director of EVAW.

‘We need to see action that focuses specifically on perpetrators’ actions, frontline responses that don’t dismiss and minimise women’s experiences, investment in prevention work to tackle male violence at its root, and sustainable funding for specialist support services so survivors can access the help they need.’

'Violence against women is not inevitable. With political will, we can create positive change'

However, taking sensible precautions is still as important as ever, particularly for community practitioners (CPs) who are visiting homes and travelling around their communities alone.

‘When you start telling a woman not to walk down a street by herself, or talking about what sort of clothing she should wear, that’s where you start blaming women for men’s behaviour,’ says Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, national officer for health at Unite. ‘But there is good common-sense safety advice, like always telling someone where you are, opting for well-lit places, and going in groups if you can – it’s about general safety and offering good advice, which applies to men as well as women.’

Janet Taylor, CPHVA Executive chair, adds: ‘Most of our staff are women and we always have to be mindful of the safety of lone workers – staff travelling alone, going into homes alone – which is why we need to follow our lone worker policies.

‘Consider a joint visit with a colleague when possible, or when you’re going alone, let someone know when you arrive and say you will ring when the visit is complete, or arrange for a colleague to ring you at a pre-arranged time.’


Domestic violence:
The shadow pandemic

Intimate partner violence is by far the most prevalent form of violence against women and girls (WHO, 2021), and it has surged during the pandemic and its resulting lockdowns, during which many women have been isolated with an abusive partner.

  • In England and Wales there was a 6% year-on-year increase in recorded domestic abuse crimes in the year ending March 2021 (ONS, 2021b). However, that’s likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with domestic abuse charities reporting a surge in activity. Refuge has said that calls and contacts to its helpline were up by average of 61% between April 2020 and February 2021 (Refuge, 2021).
  • CPs can find themselves on the frontline. ‘Domestic violence is part of our caseload as health visitors and school nurses,’ says Janet Taylor. ‘Health visitors ask specific questions at antenatal visits, as well as postnatal visits, regarding domestic violence. These are asked when the mum is alone with the health professional.
  • ‘In schools, children may make a disclosure or teenage girls may already be in abusive or unhealthy relationships. That education needs to start early on, teaching boys and girls about healthy relationships and what is and isn’t acceptable.’
  • HVs visit all families, regardless of other services that may be involved, and school nurses are often a first point of contact for the school-age population. ‘We will have issues and concerns reported to us as key health professionals, or pick up on comments people say that raise concerns and can uncover those issues – whether that’s domestic violence or something like grooming or online abuse – and we have a duty of care to flag and follow up,’ says Janet. ‘We also have safeguarding nurse specialists and all staff have access to their expertise with an open-door policy. They also provide regular supervision to staff.’
  • Trusts will also have a vulnerable adult policy and guidance for staff on how to help prevent vulnerable adults becoming victims of violence and abuse.
  • Together, says Janet, HVs, school nurses and public health practitioners, safeguarding nurse specialists and named nurses for safeguarding form ‘a formidable support for those at risk’.


Taking action

It appears that calls for action have been heeded at the top, with both police and policymakers taking steps to implement change.

In Scotland, the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill 2021 gave the nation’s police and courts more powers to protect people who are at risk of domestic abuse, enabling them to ban suspected abusers from re-entering the person at risk’s home and from approaching or contacting them. Police Scotland is also developing a new strategy to tackle VAWG, set out by its deputy chief constable Malcolm Graham to the Scottish Police Authority in January.

In Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK without a specific strategy on VAWG, ministers have called for views on two strategies that aim to tackle it.

In July last year, the home secretary set out Westminster’s new strategy to keep women and girls safe at home, online and on the streets. December saw the launch of a new policing framework in England and Wales that sets out actions to make women and girls safer and is based on three core principles: relentlessly pursuing perpetrators, creating safer spaces and rebuilding trust in the police.

Is this enough? ‘Last year put VAWG on the agenda like never before,’ says Andrea. ‘While we’ve seen big commitments from politicians, the police and our justice agencies, we are yet to see the funding, accountability and meaningful internal change that is needed to radically transform the approach, rather than simply papering over the cracks in a broken system. Violence against women is not inevitable. With political will, we can create positive change.’

'It’s about a mindset shift in policing, in education – creating a culture where violence is never accepted'

A shift in thinking

Threaded through both public reaction and national action is the understanding that preventing VAWG must involve tackling its root causes, and that means challenging societal and cultural norms that can lead to violence.

This shift in thinking is much in evidence, from the ‘call-out culture’ set out by England and Wales’s new policing framework, to the House of Lords voting to make misogyny a hate crime, to Northern Ireland’s Equally Safe Strategy, which is specifically designed to address societal attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

As Northern Ireland deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill puts it, we need to understand ‘the progression from damaging attitudes towards abusive behaviours’ – whether that’s entrenched gender inequality and everyday sexism, or the likes of catcalling, objectification of women, locker room ‘banter’ and rape ‘jokes’.

This shift needs to be embedded from childhood, says Andrea, who is calling for investment in prevention and quality, as well as specialist-led work to identify and address abuse in schools. ‘We can change this so that young people and future generations are free from gendered violence,’ she says.

‘School is where children and young people’s attitudes are shaped, and the government must commit to putting adequate resourcing behind relationships and sex education and prevention work.’

Maggie Blyth is the recently appointed national police lead for VAWG, whose role is to coordinate police action across England and Wales on this issue. She has called for a ‘whole-system approach’ and the need to ‘work as a society’ to create change.

‘It can’t stop with policing,’ she says. ‘Policing cannot arrest its way out of solving VAWG. We can play our part – and we need to do that better, we need to shine the light on what isn’t working – but we also need to work in partnership with other sectors, other parts of society. We need that whole-system approach to really making a difference.

‘At this moment in history, so many organisations, individuals and women and girls themselves are calling for change – that is really important to me.’

Be the change

Every individual has a role to play in calling out the attitudes and behaviours that underlie a culture in which VAWG persists. ‘This is a problem for all of us, not just a problem for women,’ says Colenzo. ‘We all have to call it out where we can.

‘Women should definitely lead the conversation as to what’s acceptable, but it’s also about the discourse happening between men. If someone is speaking about or behaving in a way that would not be an acceptable way to talk about or treat your daughter, your sister, your mother, your wife, it isn’t an acceptable way to speak about any woman or girl.’

Janet adds: ‘I hope this is a turning point. I think the message has to be that, in all we see and do, we all must call out inappropriate behaviour – even if that’s a “joke” or what somebody might think of as “banter”.

‘If we don’t tolerate the little things, they don’t escalate, and they’re easier to tackle than the big things. It’s about a mindset shift, which needs to be underpinned by laws and policies in government, in policing, in education – creating a culture where violence is never accepted.’


Resources


References

End Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition. (2022) A different world is possible. See: endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/a-different-world-is-possible/  (accessed 2 February 2022).

ONS. (2021a) The lasting impact of violence against women and girls. See: ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/thelastingimpactofviolenceagainstwomenandgirls/2021-11-24 (accessed 2 February 2022).

ONS. (2021b) Domestic abuse prevalence and trends, England and Wales: year ending March 2021. See: ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseprevalenceandtrendsenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2021 (accessed 2 February 2022).

Refuge. (2021) A year of lockdown: Refuge releases new figures showing dramatic increase in activity. See: https://www.refuge.org.uk/a-year-of-lockdown (accessed 2 February 2022).

WHO (2021) Devastatingly pervasive: 1 in 3 women globally experience violence. See: who.int/news/item/09-03-2021-devastatingly-pervasive-1-in-3-women-globally-experience-violence (accessed 3 February 2022).
 

Image credit | Shutterstock

 

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