I agree. I also agree with those who said we need a whole-school approach. Yes, PSHE is vital but such education should also be mainstreamed across all other parts of the education system.
The figures, tragically, are all too familiar. In Britain, 60,000 women are raped every year and two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. That culture of violence is doing enormous damage to our young people. As Claire Perry said, NSPCC research found that so-called sexting is linked to coercive behaviour, bullying and violence and has a disproportionate impact on girls. A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that more than 70% of 16 to 18-year-old boys and girls said that they heard sexual name calling towards girls routinely and, even more disturbingly, one in three girls said that they experienced groping or other unwanted sexual touching at school.
In a report published last year entitled “I thought I was the only one,” the office of the Children’s Commissioner found that in the space of just 12 months more than 16,000 children, mostly girls, were identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation. The report highlights that we need to ask why so many males, both young and old, think it is acceptable to treat both girls and boys as objects to be used and abused. That brings me to my key point: violence does not happen in a vacuum. We must recognise the impact of the wider culture, so I want to focus on just one aspect of that—the objectification of women in the media, whether it is in the newspapers, music videos, adverts and video games.
Women have been served up as sex objects in some of our daily newspapers for many years. They show images that would be prohibited on television or subject to the watershed, yet they are sold entirely without age restriction in shops, often at a child’s eye level. As the mother of two sons, there are shops I would prefer not to go into because of the eye-level material that they will see and have seen and because of the effect on them.
Every week we read in the papers cases of women who are killed by their partner or former partner. Every one of these cases should cause an outcry, but rarely warrants a paragraph because it is tragically becoming so routine. The problem was highlighted last year by women’s groups who gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and later published a report called “Just the Women”. This examined how domestic homicide cases are reported as “tragic” one-off incidents, rather than as part of a well-understood pattern of behaviour. Rape cases in some papers are routinely placed next to pictures of half-naked women. Cases of forced marriage or so-called honour-based violence, a horrible misnomer, are explained in terms of culture or religion—anything but violence against women and girls. Lord Leveson himself suggested that a front-page report in The Sun headed “Bodyguards for battered Towie sisters” about violence against two women from “The Only Way is Essex”, which was accompanied by a picture of one of the women in an erotic pose in lingerie, may well infringe cause 12—the discrimination clause—of the editors code of practice.
No one is suggesting that the media are solely to blame for these attitudes, but their objectification of women and the treatment by some newspapers, for example, of rape cases go some considerable way towards explaining why prejudicial attitudes to women are so deeply entrenched and are so normalised. The chief Crown prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, has expressed concern about the impact that the treatment of women in the media has on rape cases and jurors’ decision making. She believes that jurors are coming to court with preconceptions about women that affect the way they consider evidence and she says:
“If a girl goes out and gets drunk and falls over . . . they are almost demonised in the media, and if they then become a victim, you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear.”
Fortunately, much needed work is being done with detectives and prosecutors, for example, to dispel myths and stereotypes about women who have been raped or subjected to sexual and others forms of violence, but Alison Saunders asks whether there is
“something more we should be doing” so that people doing jury service are not being challenged for the first time, and the subject is not one that they are thinking about for the first time.
The answer to that question is, of course, yes. That is why our schools should be taking a lead. Work to prevent violence against women and girls must be an integral part of education policy, delivered in every school as part of the statutory curriculum. It is astonishing that in 2010 40% of 16 to 18-year-olds said either that they did not receive lessons or information on sexual consent, or that they did not know whether they did. Although PSHE education must now teach about consent, it needs to go further and cover all forms of violence against women, including teenage relationship abuse, forced marriage, FGM and sexual exploitation. It should also be linked to work on gender equality and challenging gender stereotypes; otherwise young women and men will never be exposed to education designed to reduce gender violence and to counter the damaging impact of cultural factors, such as the media.
The 1 billion women rising today want a world that empowers young people, rather than represses their sexuality, so work in our schools must allow young people to be more in control of their sexual identity, rather than being dictated to by the media or advertising. Crucially, it must address harmful notions of masculinity and present boys with positive alternatives. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the Deputy Children’s Commissioner have both spoken out about the impact of pornography on young men’s sexually aggressive behaviour, and there is evidence of the negative impact of porn on young men’s attitudes to women.
In my constituency, the domestic abuse charity Rise is an excellent example of existing good practice. It delivers a PSHE preventive education programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city. Our schools also subscribe to the whole-school approach recommended by the End Violence Against Women coalition, where heads take a lead, teachers are trained on the issues, and all students receive comprehensive sex and relationship education which deals with consent, equality and respect. If we are serious about preventing gender violence, those messages need to be reflected not just in our schools but across society as a whole.