Violence against Women and Girls

Part of Contamination of Beef Products – in the House of Commons at 1:57 pm on 14th February 2013.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Fisheries) 1:57 pm, 14th February 2013

It is a pleasure to follow Jane Ellison, and I congratulate the Members who secured this debate, in particular Fiona Mactaggart, who opened it so eloquently.

The One Billion Rising campaign reminds us that one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to commend the women and men who in so many different ways are refusing to accept the status quo and are working either to support the victims of sexual violence or to change laws, attitudes, customs and institutions that perpetuate abuses of power here at home and internationally.

On a day when so many people around the world are celebrating loving relationships, it is important to highlight the extent to which violence against women and girls blights our individual and collective lives and to acknowledge the systemic nature of violence against women. It affects all of us, directly or indirectly, whatever our age, nationality and religion. I am sure all of us will have experienced gender-based violence or will know a friend, sister, mother, aunt or work colleague who has experienced it.

It is also important not to be overwhelmed by the dimensions of the problem and the scale of the challenge of ending the culture of violence. Some 20 or 30 years ago domestic abuse was seen as a private family matter. Too often criminal violence in the home was not pursued as it ought to have been. It was a taboo subject. Breaking the silence around abuse has been an important milestone on the road to taking the issue seriously and tackling it. It is a multifaceted problem, but I believe it is underpinned by inequality between women and men, and is perpetuated through unacceptable abuses of power. One reason why it is so difficult to address is that it challenges deeply held attitudes and beliefs, understandings of justice and ingrained cultural perspectives—yet it is neither inevitable nor intractable.

As legislators, we have a special responsibility to tackle the grave and serious human rights abuses happening in our own community. We also need to recognise that we are not impotent to deliver meaningful progress. Today’s motion has focused largely on prevention within the formal education system. Obviously, education is a devolved issue in Scotland, and the structure of the curriculum does not mirror the situation in other parts of the UK. Nevertheless, I wish colleagues well in their efforts to improve the curriculum in England and Wales, and I hope there will be reciprocal learning on how the respective education systems can rise to the challenge, especially given the alarming attitudes to sexual violence recorded among young people, to which Members have alluded. Dr Wollaston talked about the normalisation of violence, so I do not see how anything could be more of a priority for us.

One example recently brought to my attention in the Scottish context was a pilot scheme initiated by the Dundee violence against women partnership, which was an attempt to embed preventive measures in the curriculum for excellence in nursery, primary and secondary school settings. Working with a range of partners and using a rights-based approach, it tries to embed the idea that children and young people have rights and that their dignity is important. The project workers commented on how relatively easy it had been to integrate preventive measures across the curriculum. They used a thematic approach so that the issues could be addressed in an English class or a statistics class—not just in the timetabled slot for health, well-being or relationships education.

Another key part of addressing sexual violence is ensuring that perpetrators are held more accountable for their actions within the criminal justice system. Changing attitudes and beliefs will not be enough on its own if people cannot realise their rights. I do not think it would be controversial to say that the historical track record has not been good in domestic terms.

Again, I would like to share some perspectives from the Scottish context, which I am sure will resonate with hon. Members from other parts of the UK. I pay tribute to the Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland for its campaigning and advocacy to raise awareness and improve our legislative framework. Only one in four rape cases reported to the police in Scotland results in a prosecution; three out of four people who seek access to justice are still denied it. We know that huge numbers—perhaps a majority—of people who have been raped do not report it to the police. In that respect, confidence in the system remains far too low. Conviction rates have historically been woeful; they are improving, albeit from an abysmal starting point. It is easy to understand why many people who have experienced serious sexual assault are reluctant to put themselves through further trauma at a time when they might feel exceptionally vulnerable. Given the fairly low prospect of securing a conviction, it takes immense courage for women to come forward.

Our criminal justice system has failed and continues to fail far too many victims of rape and sexual assault. Many of us have been deeply saddened by the dreadful revelations about the suicide of Frances Andrade. Back in 2002, an equally tragic death took place in Scotland when 17-year-old Lindsay Anderson took her own life shortly after giving evidence at the trial of a person subsequently convicted of raping her. What was particularly appalling was that in court Lindsay had to hold up the underwear she had been wearing at the time of the attack. It was sickening and, frankly, it still leaves me speechless. In spite of real efforts to move away from using women’s character and sexual history in court, people subjected to sexual violence are still traumatised by the process, which can compound the very real harm done by the original offence.

I do not have much time left. Before concluding, I echo the points made earlier about the way in which women are portrayed in popular culture and about the misogyny often expressed in social media. We do not have any room for complacency. Prevention and accountability must go hand in hand. Together, we really can make progress and end—