Two women are killed every week in the UK—109 women last year. Worldwide acts of violence against women and girls aged 15 to 44 cause more deaths and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. More than 53% of children aged five to 18 in India have been sexually abused, and 57% of Australian women reported experiencing violence in their lifetime. In 2010-11 728,145 incidents of domestic violence were recorded by our police, but only 8% of those cases ended successfully in prosecution. Some 45% of women in the UK have experienced violence.
It is no wonder that 1 billion women are rising today. As Kathy Lette said at the rally in Parliament square earlier today, “Women are always runners-up in the human race.” The statistics are shocking and possibly challengeable, but it is not enough to be horrified. We have to do something. A study by Professor David Gadd, “From Boys to Men”, found that among year 9 pupils, 48.4% of boys and 33.3% of girls thought it was all right to hit their partners in certain circumstances. The Girl Guides attitude survey found that 39% of girls and 43% of boys thought it was all right “to make you tell your boyfriend where you are all the time”; 21% of girls and 39% of boys thought it was all right for a boy to tell his girlfriend what she can and cannot wear; and 2% of girls and 11% of boys thought it was all right to hit or kick somebody if they spoke to someone else at a party.
When young people believe that violence in a relationship is okay, we have a long, long way to go, because domestic violence is not about uncontrolled emotions. It is about power and control of one’s partner. It is about how women are viewed in society. Think back to those traditional marriage vows, which start with
“Who gives this woman to this man” and end with women promising to obey. The vows may have been updated, but in so many cases attitudes have not.
If we want to change attitudes, we need good sex and relationships education in schools. We need girls and boys to be confident in themselves and to have good self-esteem. We especially need girls to be assertive and not to accept that they have to do what they are told to do by their partner. Just think about where young people currently get much of their education about sex and relationships. Some may come from parents, but much more will come from peers and pornography. When I worked with young people, I was horrified by the publications they were reading and the films they were watching.
Porn does not talk about loving relationships or about young people waiting until they are ready to have sex. It does not talk about safe sex. It talks about taking women, about domination, about rough sex, about women as sexual objects to be used. I was deeply shocked when one young woman told me about being with a group of girls and boys in the bedroom of one of the boys. This boy was masturbating while looking at pornography in full view of the group. This was deemed to be appropriate behaviour, nothing unusual, perfectly normal.
I have worked with many victims of domestic violence over the years, including colleagues. Domestic violence robs the victim of confidence and self-esteem. Victims are told that it is their fault—if only they were a better girlfriend, wife, mother, lover, worker, cook, cleaner, this would not be happening to them. The reality is that whatever they did, however they behaved, the violence would still happen, because in the end that partner becomes the whipping boy, the outlet for frustration and anger—but, of course, “I only do it because I love you, dear.”
I believe sex and relationships education is essential in talking about good relationships, positive relationships, equal relationships. It is essential in building assertiveness in girls so that they do not accept that they should be hit and controlled. An Irish study showed that 12% of year 11 and 12 pupils think that boyfriends who hit girlfriends deserve a second chance. For me, that decision to stay, that excuse that “he only did it because he was stressed/upset/I was bad/he’ll never do it again” is far too often the start of a journey into long-term domestic abuse.
Such abuse is not only, and may not even be, violent, but it is psychological. It is controlling, threatening and bullying. The normal journey is one where the woman becomes more and more isolated because the perpetrator makes it impossible for the victim to maintain relationships with family and friends. Her self-confidence is stripped away and she can no longer see a way out. The fear of the perpetrator does not disappear if she manages to walk out. That is why refuges do not publish addresses and why women often have to move many miles away from their previous home and from any remaining support network.
Relationships are fundamental to our society, but too often they are not built on equality or mutual trust and respect. The very least we can do in a civilised society is give young people information and skills, and hopefully values, so that they can build positive and equal relationships.