Strategy to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 23rd March 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly condemns violence against women and girls in all forms; notes with concern that Northern Ireland is the only place on these islands that does not have a specific strategy to tackle gender-based violence and abuse; regrets that the Executive are failing to meet their international obligations in this regard; and calls on the Minister of Justice and the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take immediate action to eliminate gender-based violence in our society by introducing a violence against women and girls strategy, underpinned by legislation and resourcing that includes a commitment to legislate to make misogyny a hate crime and prioritises early intervention in schools to erode sexist attitudes and build lifelong positive relationships.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am proposing the motion on behalf of the SDLP. It condemns violence against women and girls in all forms and seeks to get the support of the House for plans to devise a specific strategy to tackle gender-based violence and abuse.

In doing so, I am particularly mindful of the horrific events that occurred in Newtownabbey over the weekend, and I place on record my sincere condolences to the families of the deceased. The images of Karen and Stacey flooding our media are simply heartbreaking, coming as they do so soon after the loss of Sarah Everard. Many families are left grieving and feeling re-traumatised each time that another woman loses her life.

Our motivations to deal with the horrific circumstances that lead to such brutal and final outcomes for so many women should be drawn from our genuine hope and aspirations to make this place — our shared home — a safer place for all women. We must collectively weed out misogyny and the behaviours that it provokes. We must find a serious and concerted way in which to recognise that our world is changing, and changing at a very fast pace. Addiction to being online is prevalent and has been spurred by the isolation of lockdown. The anonymity afforded to online users reveals a level of misogyny that is not otherwise captured by any data. The casually or thinly disguised dislike, contempt for or ingrained prejudice against women can be found on many social media platforms in a matter of seconds. One search reveals plenty. The innocent sharing of memes that degrade women, or the normalised register of language that would never be uttered offline, depicts a fertile environment for hate to grow.

I acknowledge that these are complicated and complex matters, with no easy fix, but we must try. It is simply not good enough that we are lagging behind all other parts of these islands in forming a strategy that seeks to make a fundamental change to our culture and to how we view the topic of gender violence.

During our deliberations on the now Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, it was made abundantly clear that the levels of violence being directed towards women and girls were and are frightening. In a call for evidence during those deliberations, the Women's Aid Federation, which I must commend for being so steadfast in its determination to see a strategy developed, submitted a paper that shone a harsh light on the reality of domestic abuse that is only a partial depiction of the abuse that women face. In June 2020, it noted that there were a total of 16,182, domestic abuse crimes reported in 2018-19. That is 16,182 abuses too many. In 2019 and 2020, which included lockdown, the PSNI reportedly responded to 32,105 incidents of domestic abuse, with domestic abuse accounting for 17% of all crime reported to the police.

There were 11 murders linked to domestic abuse in 2017-18. Since lockdown began, eight women have been brutally murdered in Northern Ireland.

Domestic abuse and gender-based violence are, of course, not exclusively female problems, but there is no escaping the fact that females are disproportionately affected. I commend groups such as the Men's Advisory Project, which correctly points out that men often also experience domestic abuse. That is a valid concern, and it will have its own targeted measures to help those men, because we cannot say that men are immune to this; they are not. However, it really paints a picture when we look at the disproportionate affect of domestic abuse on women.

The need for us to urgently intervene to keep women safe and alive cannot be overstated. A fully resourced strategy could seek to adopt a preventative and proactive approach. It could include providing age-appropriate and timely education on healthy, loving relationships and the better identification of early signs of abuse. It could prevent abusive behaviours becoming normalised or entrenched, seek to prevent perpetrators moving from one victim to the next and offer critical support before a crisis develops. Whilst I, like many others in the House, am not privy to the ministerial paper that was presented to the Executive, I am hopeful that it will include topics such as those.

Through open conversations and debates such as this, we blow away the myths associated with victim blaming and stigma. We remove any remaining taboos and begin to empower women. I welcome the First Minister and deputy First Minister being in attendance, and I note the First Minister's comments in the media in support of this type of strategy. I also give recognition to the Minister of Justice, who, originally a little hesitant to see the need to break this down in a gender-specific way, has more recently come out to suggest that she is supportive and has acted on her word by bringing that paper to the Executive.

I urge every Member to support the motion. I also wish to take a moment to speak about the amendment. The amendment reorders the wording, I suppose, but I was trying to find where it actually brought a differential to the original motion. The one significant deviation that it appears to make is that it calls for the standardisation of the relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programme in schools. I made the point in Committee and will make it again in the House that a large body of work could be developed in the form of an RSE programme before any Member would diverge from their views. The basic building blocks of respect and love are fundamental to all healthy relationships. Standardising may set a limit on how far those age-appropriate conversations will go and does not negate the critical role of parenting. The rules of respect are universal and need to be promoted and reinforced by all. Therefore, we have no objection to the amendment and will support it. However, we want to make it clear that it may be a limiting factor as we go forward, and I hope that people are respectful of that.

I cannot state enough the need for Northern Ireland to act on the issue. I look forward to hearing Members' contributions, and I urge all Members to support the motion.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 3:45 pm, 23rd March 2021

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "regard;" and insert: "and calls on the Executive to take immediate action to eliminate gender-based violence by introducing a violence against women and girls strategy that is fully resourced and underpinned by legislation to make misogyny a hate crime, and to introduce standardised, comprehensive relationships and sexuality education in our schools to eradicate sexist attitudes and build lifelong, positive relationships."

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member will have five minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Please open the debate on the amendment.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Over the weekend, I was chatting to my partner about this public debate. I asked him whether he had ever been taught or warned about not running at night, keeping to well-lit areas and avoiding going out on his own. Had he ever had his choice of outfit commented on, been verbally abused or victim-blamed, been inappropriately touched or warned about being sexually assaulted? Never: not once. That is the polar opposite of my and many other women's experiences, not because we went to different schools or were brought up differently, but simply because he is a man and I am a woman.

Violence against women and girls has been described as:

"one of the most pervasive violations of human rights in the world [yet] one of the least prosecuted crimes".

Throughout history, women and girls have been subjected to patriarchal structures in society, which give men the social power and legitimacy not only to make the rules but to police them. That is the firm reality of the society in which we live, not just in Northern Ireland but globally. The system is not working. It is a fact that, in most societies, men have power over women. That is shown in many ways: in spheres of influence, in the so-called traditional roles in the home, in relation to children, in the division of labour and in wages and property rights. The global average for women's income is around half of what men are paid. In the midst of those inequalities, and practically symptomatic of that gender imbalance, we have a problem. The problem is male violence: that which is perpetrated by men against women and girls.

Globally, one in three women has been subjected to physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Research from the femicide census shows that, on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. The report makes for grim reading. From 2009 to 2018, 1,425 women were murdered. Almost half of the men who killed women during that 10-year period were known to have a history of violence against women. Seventy per cent of the killings took place in the home that the perpetrator shared with the victim or in the victim's own home. The sad reality is that violence and abuse against women and girls is endemic across the world, and responses to it are woefully inadequate legally, institutionally and societally.

The unfortunate circumstances in Northern Ireland are compounded by the fact that we have always lagged behind when it comes to legislation, policy and change. Other jurisdictions moved to criminalise coercive control many years before a Bill was brought before the House. Criminal offences such as stalking have been introduced previously in other places. England introduced a strategy to end violence against women and girls in 2010, Scotland in 2014, and, in 2015, Wales passed the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act, which imposes a duty on the Government to prepare, publish, review and implement a national strategy.

What do we have in Northern Ireland? Very little. We have, it seems, a plethora of gender-neutral policies and strategies but nothing that really recognises gender-based violence. The question, therefore, is this: what is going on? I welcome the debate and recent statements to the media by many Executive Ministers on a strategy. However, after everything that has happened, and, in the past year, for example, woman after woman being murdered, the fact that it has taken so long for us finally to kick into action is disappointing, frustrating and absolutely disgraceful.

In June 2020, I listened carefully to Women's Aid call for a strategy on violence against women and girls, and, as a member of the Justice Committee and as an individual Member, I made representations to the Minister of Justice to bring one forward. We pressed for that continually in Committee. The response that we received from the Department was deeply disappointing. I will quote from the Committee's report on the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, which was published in October 2020. The Department said:

"There would be concerns that the adoption of a gendered strategy could send out a message that tackling abuse against men is less important."

As Women's Aid explained to the Committee, a gendered strategy:

"is not about a hierarchy of victims with one group deserving of more, it is just about that recognition that it is a gender-based crime" and about grasping the facts and reality in order to develop evidence-based interventions.

We discussed an amendment to the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill to introduce a strategy but were advised that it would fall outside the scope, and we did not pursue it. With the help of Assembly staff, I drafted an amendment and published it on 2 November 2020. It was there for every MLA and Minister to see, but it was not selected.

I am glad that the Executive will look at the issue as a matter of urgency, and I hope that any forthcoming strategy will be cross-departmental, fully resourced and effectively implemented with a delivery model that incorporates regular reviews of its effectiveness. I also congratulate and pay tribute to Women's Aid for their campaign to get this to the Executive table.

We need to recognise the specific nature of the context in which we live. Studies have shown that it remains the case that the legacy of the conflict, such as paramilitarism, ethno-national antagonisms, party politics and political focus on identity issues at the expense of others, continues to have a negative implication for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The traditional public-private divide has meant that the legal system is simply not equipped to deal with the issues that affect women and girls more widely, and we have a system that, for too long, has institutionalised gender bias and stereotypes. It is time to change that. I welcome the intervention from Sir John Gillen yesterday, when he criticised the pace of change of the reforms to the justice system, and I fully agree that those recommendations around serious sexual offences need to be implemented urgently.

We must recognise abuses that target women, those who are transgender and those who are non-binary simply because of their gender identity for what they are: hate crimes. Misogyny is a blight that affects us all, and I give credit and thanks to the Raise Your Voice campaign and the councils that have led the way on this, raising awareness in the council chambers. I welcome Judge Marrinan's recommendations and urge the Justice Minister to bring forward hate crime legislation as soon as possible with buy-in across the Executive. We know what we need to do, so let us get it done.

Earlier this month, the expert advisory panel on a gender equality strategy appointed by DFC described relationships and sexuality education in our schools as "inconsistent and insufficient". There is no uniform pattern to the provision of RSE in schools. Provision is not the same across the board. For every young person who has engaged with some form of RSE, many others have not had anywhere near the same experience. Another expert panel tasked with looking at a sexual orientation strategy has advised that RSE should not be dependent on school ethos. What more do we need?

Our young people tell us that RSE is not sufficient. Research by Belfast Youth Forum showed that only 66% said that they had received RSE in school, and 60% felt that the information they had received was either "not very useful" or "not useful at all". We need age-appropriate, standardised, comprehensive RSE, including the teaching of issues such as gender relations and responsible sexual behaviour, delivered by professionals using a rights-based approach and a gender-focused programme that reflects the realities of society and the relationships that people are in.

UNESCO has also published technical guidance on RSE since 2006, and its 2016 review found that using an explicit rights-based approach in comprehensive sex ed programmes leads to positive effects on attitudes, including increased knowledge of one's rights in a sexual relationship, increased communication with parents about sex and relationships and greater self-efficacy in managing risky situations. There are also significant longer-term positive effects around the psychosocial and behavioural outcomes. The review of evidence also found that gender-focused programmes are substantially more effective than gender-blind programmes at achieving health outcomes such as reducing rates of unintended pregnancy or STIs.

We need a strategy to tackle gender-based violence. We have always needed one. A strategy will provide the framework of accountability and oversight that we need to tackle misogyny and improve RSE in our schools. The evidence stares us in the face, and it shows that educational programmes that explicitly address gender inequality by confronting beliefs that support male authority over women, for example, are more effective in reducing partner violence and changing sexual behaviour. Our amendment calls for that to be recognised and for comprehensive RSE to be standardised across all our schools. It also situates the strategy across the entire Executive, recognising that all Departments must play their part and that Ministers should allocate sufficient resources to deliver change. I urge all Members to support the amendment and the motion.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

As a party, we fully support the calls for a Northern Ireland strategy on violence against women and girls. It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have such a strategy in place. That is worrying, as sexual and violent crime against females continues to rise, and it is astounding that, across the UK, one in five women will experience sexual assault during their lifetime. The Justice Minister's commitment to bring forward a paper to the Executive to kick-start the process of devising a violence against women and girls strategy is, therefore, not only welcome but long overdue.

I put on record my thanks to Women's Aid and other advocates who have consistently and passionately highlighted the need for stronger measures on the issue. The issues surrounding violence against women and domestic abuse have not disappeared during the COVID-19 pandemic; if anything, they have increased. A strategy must recognise our situation and the consequences of COVID-19 and lockdown on vulnerable women and, often, their children. The support given by organisations such as Women's Aid during the pandemic has been nothing short of phenomenal. They have adapted to the challenges and continued to support women and children across the country. Any steps to develop and implement a Northern Ireland strategy must be co-designed and must command the support of our committed and highly valued community and voluntary partners. More long-term funding for core services in the community and voluntary sector will also be necessary to achieve many of the aims of a successful strategy.

PSNI crime and domestic violence statistics paint a frightening picture of the situation in Northern Ireland. In 1998-99, almost 900 sexual assaults on females were recorded; in 2019-20, that number had grown to over 1,400. The recent horrific murder of Sarah Everard in England and, indeed, the tragic killings in Newtownabbey on Friday have really brought home the issue of violence against women. Our justice system, police and other public services must be given every possible tool to tackle violence of that nature.

The recently passed Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act is an important step in the right direction. I hope the Act's powers of tougher sentencing will be properly utilised. Legislative progress on stalking and upskirting will also make a positive contribution to tackling some of the abuse faced by women in our society. I commend the Justice Minister and the Department for the progress made in those areas over the past year. There is, however, a risk that the current mechanisms to address harm against women and girls are not being used to full effect. Many will, rightly or wrongly, say that our justice system is not tough enough on criminals on a wide range of crimes. I have the same fear about how those who commit crimes targeting women are dealt with in the courts. My party colleague Lord Morrow's Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill received Royal Assent in 2015, yet referrals, prosecutions and convictions for human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women remain unacceptably low in our Province. We need to ensure that the existing tools are applied effectively by the judiciary to protect women and girls. The exploiters of women must feel the full force of the law and be made an example of, and a clear message must be sent that we will not tolerate their behaviour.

A strategy should include mechanisms for monitoring the success and outcomes of all paths and forthcoming legislation. By doing that, we can better identify what more can be done. All of that must be put in the context of a wider strategy to deal effectively with present issues and prepare for new challenges. Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of new forms of abuse and violence against females, including cyberflashing, upskirting and revenge pornography, to name a few. There are increasing reports of abuse and extreme sexism in online forums and social media platforms, which is not recorded in official data. The pace of technological change means that evolving forms of crimes against women and girls are emerging. The key test of any strategy is how it identifies new trends as well as the volume and prevalence of offences. <BR/>A strategy must also consider the importance of prevention and education. Women need to have confidence that any report of violence and abuse will be taken seriously, that they will not be victim-blamed and that the perpetrator will not be able to harm them any more. Education is vital in tackling negative and toxic attitudes towards women. Our young people need to be educated about healthy relationships, how to recognise dangerous and coercive behaviour and where to turn to for help. As a society, we should address and never tolerate attempts to victim-blame, excuse or justify violence against women, and that includes those who perpetrated violence and who disappeared, murdered, maimed, abused and orphaned many women and girls under the guise of so-called political objectives during decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Will the Member agree that there are people with information who should come forward with that evidence? Lisa Dorrian is one example. They perpetuate the violence that they did to her in the past against the family today.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member has almost an extra minute.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I fully agree with his comments. We must call out harmful behaviour and attitudes from wherever they come.

I welcome all the steps being taken to initiate a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.

I recognise that a difficult task lies ahead for all of us to make it a success, but it is most necessary. As an Assembly, we must take a firm stance against all forms of violence. Our justice system must get tougher on violence against women and girls. We cannot have a light-touch approach to perpetrators and abusers.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the proposer of the motion and the proposer of the amendment for bringing them to the House. We raised the issue on a number of occasions with the Justice Minister during the Committee Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act. That was not just the Sinn Féin representatives but other members of the Committee, because we felt that it was important. Whilst that piece of legislation was perhaps not the right place to address the issue, it absolutely needs to be addressed, so I welcome that we are discussing it today.

It is extremely sad that we are discussing the issue against the backdrop of the killings of two women on Friday night and the killing of Sarah Everard the week before. Unfortunately, those are not the only women or girls who have suffered or who we have lost in the community, so I offer our sympathies to all those who have lost members of their families: their mummies, their sisters and their daughters.

I listened to Frank Mullane yesterday on the radio. A number of Members were interviewed as part of that piece so they probably heard him, too, but he talked about the murder of his sister and about his and his family's campaign to effect change. One issue that he raised was the importance of the first response and protection service. On that, we are talking to policing and justice, which is why I felt that it fitted with the Department of Justice. It obviously is a cross-cutting issue that goes across all Departments; every Department will have to have an input to the strategy and face up to their responsibilities. For that reason, the Department of Justice probably needs to take the lead. Somebody needs to take the lead. We need to see an effective strategy, not something like the piecemeal and gender-blind approach that we have had to date.

We all have men in our lives whom we love, who love us and who are good to us, so we do not need to constantly defend the fact that we are talking about a strategy to address violence against women and girls. We do not need to keep balancing that by saying that men are victims. We know that they are, but the statistics bear out that the victims are mostly women and that the perpetrators are mostly men, even when men are the victims. We need to stop trying to balance things out and to accept that those are the facts.

We are all well aware of the under-reporting of domestic and sexual violence against women, so even the statistics that we have are not right and are not close to being right. I welcome what the Minister of Justice has brought forward so far through the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act and the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill. Hopefully, we will have a miscellaneous provisions Bill that deals with upskirting, downblousing and some of the Gillen recommendations, and we have the stalking legislation. All that is progressive and good. That is what we are here to do. We are here to legislate, but we need to ensure that we talk to and engage with the victims and the sector on the strategy. We, as legislators, will absolutely do our bit, but we need to engage with those people. We need to engage with Women's Aid, which has done so much in this campaign, with the victims who have survived and with the families of those who have not survived, because they will help to inform any strategy that we bring forward.

I absolutely support the amendment. I have talked in the House before to the fact that we need standardised sex and relationship education across our education system. I, as a mummy, have a responsibility. I take that seriously, and I will do my best to educate my child on what a healthy relationship looks like. However, not every child has that in their home. Not every child has parents, and not every child has good guidance. That is the reality of the world that we live in, so our education system has to pick up the slack in that, as do we, as a community. In saying that, one of the reasons why we have failed to recognise domestic violence as a whole, but particularly violence against women, is that we decided that it was a problem inside the home and not one for us as a community. It is, and I am glad to see that we are finally recognising that.

A strategy will, hopefully, bring us forward and ensure that all our community, including those who want to resist this, finally recognise that the issue has to be dealt with.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the motion and confirm that we will support the Green Party amendment.

In the last week, Northern Ireland has heard more sad news: another two women have died following an act of violence. If only that could be the last time that we hear such devastating news. Sadly, as we in the Chamber know, it will not be. When the next news report comes, we will shake our heads and express sympathy, knowing that that will not be the last time either. Violence against women and girls will continue until society as a whole says, "Enough". I support the amendment, because I believe that it is time that the whole Executive acted as a single unit to eradicate misogyny, sexism and violence against women.

By the time that an attacker reaches the criminal justice system, they have already acted violently against their victim. We need to stop women and girls, or anyone, becoming a victim in the first place. That has to start right at the beginning by ensuring that there is appropriate support through pregnancy and effective help through a child's early years and school years, and that, through the curriculum, everyone is taught to recognise what a positive relationship is and what to do if someone treats them badly, is abusive or is physically violent. We should seek to prevent people from becoming victims.

In the House, Members have, over a number of debates, confirmed the need to recognise that, while far too many women bear the brunt of violence, it is an issue not solely for women and girls but for all people. We all understand that, in creating a violence against women and girls strategy, we must take a gendered approach. As mentioned by others, men are, by far, the abusers, and they must therefore be part of the strategy. It cannot be hidden away as a women's issue. We have the chance to change, to improve and to encourage healthy relationships for everyone across society, but it will take a joined-up, targeted and funded approach to eradicate the scourge of violence.

I know that the Minister of Justice brought a paper to the Executive today. I do not what the paper's contents are, but I hope that it has been or will be discussed. Violence against women and girls is a pertinent and live issue. It is not going away. I sincerely hope that the Executive take positive action and take forward whatever is set out in the paper. That would send out a clear signal to all that acts of violence against women and girls, or anybody, are wrong and that we are committed to preventing anyone from ever being a victim again.

I mentioned the Minister of Justice, a woman who takes her fair share of abuse, I have to say, inside and outside the Chamber. I would like to thank Pam Cameron for recognising the work of the Minister. These are tough times.

Many in the House have spoken in debates about and been involved in scrutinising the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, which received Royal Assent on 1 March. The Minister is also bringing forward investment for advocacy support services, which will support victims of domestic and sexual abuse as they go through the criminal justice system. The domestic violence and abuse scheme enables police and their partners to manage risk better through the sharing of relevant information about a person's history of domestic abuse. The behavioural change programme aims to ensure the safety of women and children and prevent further abusive behaviour. The programme will develop an effective partnership with the five trusts across Northern Ireland. The Minister introduced domestic homicide reviews in December 2020 to enable learning from cases of homicide resulting from domestic violence. The consultation on enhancing legal protections for victims of domestic abuse closed last month. The consultation, as many know, sought views on creating new domestic abuse protection notices and protection orders. The Minister continues the work on modern slavery and trafficking and will publish her annual modern slavery strategy. The review of hate crime, as presented by Judge Marrinan, was published on 1 December. The Minister and her officials are considering the 34 recommendations, and a response is expected. On top of that, the Protection from Stalking Bill was introduced. The Minister and her officials are taking forward Sir John Gillen's recommendations through the implementation plan that will present a programme of transformation across the criminal justice system. Changes that many welcome include trauma-informed training for police, the Public Prosecution Service, legal professionals and other justice partners.

As we know and others mentioned, the Gillen report recommended that relationships and sexuality education in schools be progressed under the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007.

The Department of Education has agreed to take the lead on the working group, and I look forward to it taking forward that work to ensure that issues such as consent, rape myths and use of social media are covered in the school curriculum.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 23rd March 2021

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Alliance absolutely supports the strategy mentioned today. As the amendment confirms, it is for the whole Executive to take responsibility for taking forward a strategy and ensuring that resourcing is available.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Given the sad news last weekend, the motion is extremely timely, and, I, too, wish to be associated with the condolences to the Newtownabbey family.

Gender-based violence against women is the systematic use of violence to reinforce power over women. That generally involves domestic violence and/or sexual violence, which is used to reinforce that power. While all violence is wrong and I recognise that there is violence against men by their partners and same-sex violence, the violence directed against women is disproportionate in comparison. As a result of gender-based violence, women are left with physical and non-physical symptoms, including feelings of worthlessness, disbelief, shame, disgust, utter humiliation and guilt, making it extremely difficult for them to report the violence and even preventing many from reporting it, to the appropriate authorities.

Sadly, as we read in our press today, since the COVID restrictions were introduced in Northern Ireland, the number of women murdered has doubled. Eight women have been violently killed as a result of gender-based violence since last March, so, if evidence were needed, there is no doubt that a violence against women and girls strategy is a must. At the very least, the strategy must reflect the thoughts of those who have been victims and of the many agencies that offer support, and it must reflect how the perpetrators are to be held accountable for their actions.

One of the key considerations in the strategy must be education. Educating our youth is necessary. From primary school onwards, young people must be encouraged to respect, listen to and accept that violence is not the way forward. They must have an understanding of what is considered acceptable towards a young girl or a woman, but, most of all, they must have positive attitudes towards one another, and those must be encouraged. Our society must be educated. Through awareness campaigns, there needs to be change in the long-established societal attitudes to domestic and sexual violence until the statistics start to reflect respect towards women and girls.

Another key consideration must be to improve the support available to victims. In 2019-2020, Women's Aid supported 560 women and 316 children in its refuges. From our community outreach support, we know that 5,536 women and 5,143 children experienced domestic abuse across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way and for citing those numbers. Does that not make the point that Women's Aid and organisations like it need to be associated with any strategy and funded to implement any resources that are required from it?

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you for your intervention. I totally agree.

The PSNI has attended domestic abuse incidents every 17 minutes. Those statistics prove how necessary it is to have emotional support, counselling and referral support, such as that from Women's Aid, but they must be properly resourced and funded.

The third consideration for the strategy must involve the perpetrator being brought or held to account for their actions. Once the victim has reported the incident, they want to see the wrongdoer being brought to justice and taking responsibility for their actions, together with their being given the support to understand the consequences of their behaviour and the impact that they have had on the victim.

The strategy needs to be effective and cross-cutting across Departments, including Justice, Education, Health and Finance. It needs to encourage a society that is inclusive of equality and mutual respect and that repels all forms of violence against women and girls. It must recognise the importance of early and effective intervention to maximise the safety and well-being of women and children. I look forward to the day when the success of the strategy —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

— will be measured by a year-on-year reduction in victims. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the motion.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

This morning, when I looked at the front page of 'The Belfast Telegraph', I was struck by the image of the eight women who have been killed over the past 12 months. When I looked at the images of Natasha, Elizabeth, Emma Jane, Patrycja, Stacey, Karen, Susan and Katie, the timeliness of today's motion struck me, as did the need for a gender-specific strategy when it comes to tackling violence against women and girls. I see no contradiction whatsoever in having gender-neutral legislation that seeks to capture all those criminal offences, whilst recognising that, in the majority of cases, the victims are women and the perpetrators are men. Not to have a strategy that recognises that, in my view, would be failing to deal with where the problem exists. I support the gender-neutral strategy.

Linda Dillon touched on the fact that the Committee dealt with the matter when it considered the domestic abuse Bill. The Committee considered tabling an amendment to compel it to happen but was not able to do so. As a result of some of the engagement during that process, the Committee raised this as one of the issues, and I am pleased that the Justice Minister now supports this approach. The Department came back, at that time, to say that there were concerns that adopting a gendered strategy could send out a message that tackling abuse against men is less important. In her opening remarks, Sinéad said that there was some nervousness about going with that approach. However, I welcome the real commitment that we will take this forward and have a gender-based strategy, because it is right that we do so.

We have the seven-year strategy, 'Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse'. It is an overarching gender-neutral document. However, this would be a specific document on tackling violence against women and girls. It is right that we have that.

I put on record my thanks to Women's Aid, which supported Committee members when we considered the issues. Women's Aid led on the petition and the campaign, and some credit can go to it for getting us to this place today. We have heard repeatedly when considering these issues at Committee that it is vital that support services are supported and that organisations such as Women's Aid get the financial resources necessary to support women when they come forward seeking help.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for taking an intervention. I spoke with representatives from Women's Aid yesterday, and the day before, on this issue. One of the concerns that they raised was that, currently, an excellent Committee is working tirelessly on this issue. I assured them that, no matter who sits on the Committee, that work would continue in the next mandate. I am delighted — I think that the Member will agree — to hear the voices across the House, because it gives a reassurance to Women's Aid that, no matter who sits on any future Justice Committee, this issue will be very much focused on.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I agree with the Member. It is because of that commitment that the Committee took forward amendments on things like access to legal aid, which was not originally in that Act, and compelling the Police Service, the courts and the Public Prosecution Service to have mandatory training so that there is a much better understanding. Some of the experience that we heard spoke to the need for that type of mandatory training. We were able to enhance the legislation and are looking at more legislation, which Members have touched on.

My colleague Pam Cameron spoke about the Human Trafficking Act. Again, that speaks to an important issue. The Assembly passed that Act, but one aspect created some controversy: payment for sexual services. I raise that to draw out a story from the time of that Act. I remember debating this very issue during an engagement with students and young people. Some of the young men said, "If I want to pay for something, I should be able to do that". It was the girls in that class who said, "How dare you think that I am a commodity that you can buy". That response was powerful. It is right that there is a job to be done for some men and some young people — not all, and we should not stereotype all men. There is a job to be done for some who regard women as a commodity and who objectify women. That has to be challenged. I agree that it has to be challenged in schools and in society at large. It is vital that work be done on that.

It is important that work is also done around social media platforms. We see all the time how females in particular, but not exclusively, are pursued and trolled by men over their appearance, and it is just appalling. Westminster has a job to do on that front in the communications legislation. There must be a much tougher approach to social media platforms. New laws must be brought in to deal with that.

I commend the proposers of the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The motion will have my full support. I will do whatever I can, in my role on the Justice Committee, to help to create better legislation in this arena.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I take this opportunity to join other Members in sending condolences to the families and friends of Karen McClean and Stacey Knell. Nothing that I can say can ease the pain that their friends and families are feeling. However, it is important for us to remember them here today and to acknowledge the many other victims of violence against women and girls.

As Sinn Féin spokesperson on children and young people, I speak in support of the motion and the amendment. The horrific events in Newtownabbey last week and the killing of Sarah Everard in England at the beginning of this month have brought the issue of violence against women and girls to the fore. Those events cause profound sadness, widespread fear and deep frustration. It is incumbent on us, as Members of the Assembly, to evaluate what we, as legislators and policymakers, have done and to identify what still needs to be done. It is regrettable that we do not have a specific strategy to tackle gender-based violence and abuse in the North. I urge the Minister of Justice to initiate the development of a violence against women and girls strategy as a matter of urgency. I welcome this debate and believe that the development of such a strategy would offer a positive way forward.

Statistics reveal the scale of the task that we have ahead of us. An NSPCC report found that one in three teenage girls had already experienced some form of violence from a boyfriend. Other figures show that one in four women experiences domestic abuse. Proportionately, the rate of women murdered by a partner here is one of the highest in Europe. At the same time, statistics show the difficulty that women face in pursuing justice. Scrutiny of rape cases over a four-year period revealed a shockingly poor rate of reported cases leading to court cases, with even fewer resulting in convictions.

A strategy to tackle violence against women and girls would be a small step towards ensuring that all our children grow up in a society of equals. We all must ask the following questions. Without a strategy, are we sending our young people out into a challenging world well equipped to understand and reject violence against women and girls? Are we empowering women and girls to challenge intimidation and violence effectively? Can we teach our boys to understand that masculinity should never be expressed through the medium of violence against women and girls?

Such a strategy should consider cultural drivers of misogyny, representations of women and girls, and the way in which our children are educated. Schools across the North should have mandatory and standardised relationship and sexuality education. Our young people should be informed and educated on healthy relationships, abuse and consent, and our schools should be equipped with the necessary training and resources to provide effective and high-quality RSE. Fundamentally, violence against women and girls is not about being ill-informed or misguided. It is about inequality and the operation of power — power asserted through a direct, illegal use of violence and control, or through an indirect failure to effectively challenge that.

As well as seeking changes in understanding behaviour and attitude, a strategy must scrutinise and challenge the operation of state institutions. We need to see greater determination by the police and the Public Prosecution Service to pursue perpetrators. We need properly resourced support services to empower our victims and, on conviction, have appropriate sentencing. Last week, the British Tory Party introduced legislation in Westminster that makes toppling a statue of a slave owner subject to harsher sentencing than that given for most rape convictions. There is something seriously wrong about that. A violence against women and girls strategy should seek to identify institutional misogyny and call it out. Misogyny should be listed as a hate crime, and appropriate action should be taken.

The message must be clear: violence against women and girls has to stop, and it has to stop now. We owe it to our children and young people — girls and boys — to act with certainty and clarity. We must address our failures to ensure that their future is a future in a society of equals; a society where boys and girls, and men and women, can live without fear of abuse or violence.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 23rd March 2021

I rise in support of the motion and the amendment. I commend the Members who have brought them to the Assembly. It is timely. Others have made reference to the sad murders of two women, last week, just a couple of miles up the road. I add my condolences to those offered to their families.

According to the UN, women, worldwide, aged 15 to 44, are more at risk from domestic violence and rape than they are from war, malaria, car accidents and cancer. It is a risk that we as women are acutely aware of. When it is normalised and deemed necessary to give teenage girls rape alarms, the course has been set for their lives. Women shoulder the burden of caring responsibilities, the brunt of domestic duties, responsibility for family planning and contraception. Perhaps, it stands to reason that ensuring that we are not the victims of crime is also our job, solely.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Last week, I had a conversation with a male friend that exposed how differently we think about the issue. We were talking about the echo chamber that is social media. My politics, by virtue of my Sinn Féin membership, are fairly obvious, so my timelines are full of other lefties who will have reposted Black Lives Matter slogans, condemning racism following the killings of George Floyd and George Nkencho respectively; who will criticise Members for homophobic letters that they have written; who have expressed disgust at the cruel and insensitive protests that have been taking place at clinics, such as the protest in Newry, which has been going on for weeks. However, nothing that we have seen being discussed in the public discourse in recent times sparked the same level of reaction on my feeds, from friends as well as fellow politicos, as the murder of Sarah Everard. As I was remarking to my friend about the number of people whom I would not count as being political commenting on the issue, he was expressing shock at the levels that women go to, on a daily basis, to keep themselves safe.

Sarah Everard's murder resonated with so many women because we can all relate. We have all noticed a taxi driver taking an unexpected route, instantly felt our throat tighten, and rung a friend to tell them where we are; crossed the street on a walk at night and fashioned our keys as a weapon; told someone that we had a boyfriend, even when we did not; laughed along at an inappropriate joke so as not to be seen as difficult; or felt a hand where we did not want one. Sarah Everard did everything that she was supposed to do — we have heard that over and over — because we are supposed to keep ourselves safe.

How many times have you heard about someone getting assaulted and then hearing a running commentary about what she was wearing, how many drinks she had consumed, whether she was on her own — whether she deserved it? It is not many years since, during a highly publicised trial relating to an alleged rape, a woman's underwear was displayed in court to prove the innocence of the accused by way of insinuations of the alleged victim's character. Lacy underwear does not mean "up for it". This sort of victim-blaming is another symptom of the misogyny that is the root cause of our high levels of gender-based violence in the first instance.

Misogyny and the continued existence of the patriarchy hurt us all. Yes, it is women who bear the brunt of attacks, women who suffer the raw end of the deal with the pay gap and career advancement, and women who have to endure commentary about our appearance, our behaviour and our morality, but the societal norms perpetuated by outdated patriarchal structures hurt us all. The narrative that all men are physically strong, violent, irresponsible ogres incapable of controlling their animal instincts could not be further from reality. It does our men a huge disservice. It creates unhelpful stereotypes that prevent male victims of abuse from coming forward, prevents men from accessing mental health services, and puts up barriers to men talking about their feelings and experiences in an open way. It is not all men, but if you snigger at rape jokes or belittle the reactions of female friends or colleagues, you are part of the problem. It does us no harm to check ourselves on internalised misogyny and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to challenge the inequality that we all witness daily.

CEDAW's concluding observations in 2019 listed worries about the lack of uniform protection of women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence across the jurisdiction of the state party, noting with particular concern the inadequacy of laws and policies to protect women. With that in mind, I welcome the introduction of this strategy, and I commend the motion.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important topic. Our society has a deep-rooted problem with misogyny and violence against women, and I echo the previous comments of Members from around the House. The brutal murder of Stacey Knell and Karen McClean on Friday has brought the clear inadequacy of the systems designed to protect women into sharp focus. This is one of the many reasons why today the SDLP is tabling this motion.

It is unacceptable that we remain the only place on these islands without a specific strategy to address violence against women and girls. What message does that send them? There is no space for complacency while women face misogynistic abuse every day, even women in this Chamber. Unfortunately, none of us is a stranger to misogynistic abuse online, on Twitter, on doorsteps and in our everyday lives and to the fear of walking home due to those who do not understand or who choose not to understand the important concept of consent.

A key part of this debate is that there is an evident call for a shift in how we tackle this issue from an educational perspective that can act as early intervention. Younger years are where healthy perceptions and respect for women are formed and created. Society is fast-changing. Our education system must reflect its commitment to teaching about true equality in society because, if we do not teach our children to respect women, the internet will get there first and teach them, as the Member who spoke previously hinted at, to objectify women and to view them through the lens of sexuality before humanity. How many times as a woman have you been in a bar or a club or at a festival or a gig and a man has groped you? It is time to put consent on the curriculum.

As a former pupil of a Catholic school where the word "sex" was practically considered a curse word, suitable relationship and sex education was not delivered to either boys or girls. You may ask why this is relevant to the debate. Relationship and sexuality education is a vital tool in empowering our young people to overcome societal and cultural pressures and learn effectively about the power of consent. I agree with Sinéad that parenting plays a huge role, as do our schools, in ensuring that our young people build a healthy understanding of what relationships are and what they look like. Instigating sexual advances without consent is a crime that is an everyday act of violence against women.

A comprehensive student survey carried out last year laid bare the extent of sexual harassment in Northern Ireland's third-level educational institutes, with one in three students revealing that they had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour during their time at university or college. That is an astonishing statistic when you consider the psychological impact that sexual misconduct can have on each and every victim and survivor.

I am grateful for charities like Nexus NI that support victims and survivors of sexual assault. We need to play our role now and intervene. We are calling today for the introduction of a robust strategy that is underpinned by legislation.

Early intervention in our schools would play a key role in eroding sexism and place a focus on building positive lifelong relationships with women. Abuse in teenage relationships can impact all genders, but it is very important to raise that. In young adulthood, females in particular who experienced teen dating violence reported increased depression symptoms, and they were 1·5 times more likely to binge-drink or smoke and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts.

What could we do more of? We do not teach young people enough about healthy relationships and how to identify and recognise abuse. More importantly, we do not equip them with the language to understand or talk about abuse. It is time that we instilled a core belief of equality and sent a strong message to our young people, with appropriate education, in order to prevent further violence against women across the North.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I welcome the fact that a number of Members tabled the motion, and I am glad to be able to speak on it.

Over the last short while, I have heard a lot of the discourse about the issue. One of the things that really stood out for me was how women are taught to protect themselves, and Emma Sheerin shared some of the ways of doing that, which I had heard about on the radio. Many women walk home alone at night carrying keys between their fingers in case they have to fight someone off. They have to plan their route home to make sure that they are on busy roads with plenty of lights and cameras, just in case. They are taught to tuck their long hair into the backs of their coats, and they get male taxi drivers to drop them off a few doors away from their home as they worry about those taxi drivers knowing where they live.

Members talked about statistics, and I was struck by those in the recent investigation by UN Women UK. It found that 97% of women aged 18 to 24 had been sexually harassed and that a further 96% did not report those situations because they believed that it would make no difference at all.

What are we to do? I firmly believe that, as men, we need to listen to the voices of women and to amplify their voices. We need to change the attitudes that feed that violence. We know that men suffer violence too, and a number of Members said that, but this is about women and girls, and the research and statistics show that the overwhelming and vast majority of victims are women and that men perpetrate the majority of that violence. World Health Organization statistics show that 82% of the victims of intimate partner homicides are women.

The discussion should not be focused on how women can protect themselves but on how men challenge and change their behaviours. That does not just mean avoiding being a perpetrator but challenging other men and calling out insulting or inappropriate behaviour. Often, misogynistic comments are passed off as jokes. However, what starts as jokes about women are insults. Those insults feed into a culture of misogyny, which leads to more serious incidents of violence. We need to have the uncomfortable conversations, because the longer that we go on without tackling the fundamental problems of misogyny and sexism, the longer that levels of violence against women will remain unacceptable.

A YouGov survey that was carried out by UN Women UK found that only 4% of women reported incidents of sexual harassment. That is a shockingly low figure and a damning indictment of how the criminal justice system has failed women for too long. There is a responsibility on the police to take complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of violence seriously. As a member of the Policing Board, I know that moves have been made in that area, but they have not been enough, by any stretch of the imagination. The police need to be given sufficient training to allow them to effectively investigate claims of violence against women and girls and to spot offences and gather evidence so that those cases can be effectively prosecuted. There also needs to be training in the Public Prosecution Service and the judiciary. When the retired judge John Gillen spoke in the media yesterday, I think it was, I noticed that he mentioned specifically that the judiciary needs that training also.

I was pleased to see mandatory training for police officers in the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act in order to allow them to police the newly introduced domestic abuse offence. Training needs to be rolled out on all forms of violence against women and girls, including issues such as harassment, stalking and sexual violence.

I finish by emphasising what I said earlier: there is an imperative on men not just to listen to women but to amplify what they say so that we can all reduce misogyny and violence drastically until it becomes a thing of the past.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 4:45 pm, 23rd March 2021

I support the motion and the amendment. Sadly, the motion is very well timed. It comes after a weekend in which it appears that we again faced the horror of two women being murdered here in Northern Ireland. It is deeply shocking, yet it continues to happen.

In my constituency, in the past year, there have, sadly, been other tragic examples. We remember Emma McParland, who was murdered in the Ormeau Road area in April, and Susan Baird, who was murdered in the Four Winds area in August. Given that the murder rate in Northern Ireland is comparatively low, the fact that we can easily recall incidents in which women were the victims within the past year and within a few miles of the Chamber reinforces that we have a specific problem that requires a specific intervention.

It was, of course, the deeply troubling murder in London, some distance from here, that really hit the headlines. Perhaps that is because Sarah Everard did everything right — she made her route known, kept to well-lit locations and notified people that she was leaving — yet she was still the victim of a chilling murder. That led to an outpouring of women sharing their experiences, and every single woman has experiences to share.

Before continuing, I put on record that, when I talk about women, I of course include trans women. I also recognise the particular vulnerability of sex workers.

Of course, men can be victims of violence. Indeed, they are proportionately more likely to be, but we have faced up to the challenge that that is largely because we tolerate too easily violence and toxicity among males from an early age. We need to move towards a society where violence is never seen as the answer. There are specific circumstances here in Northern Ireland that we cannot ignore. We still have a hangover from the Troubles, where pain and injury were used as legitimate mechanisms to try to exert authority and control and to instil fear, and we have done little to tackle the resulting gang culture that is still referred to as paramilitarism, where men who threaten or use violence are seen by some as role models in their community. There is something deeply toxic and troubling about that and the fact that it is still going on a generation after the agreement.

What about the victims? Women who suffer gender-based violence often do so in silence. Such is the way in which society has skewed this that victims often end up feeling shame and as though they have only themselves to blame. Why should women just walking home be expected to do so many things right? It is an example of why Naomi Long's work in the Justice Ministry over the past year has been vital. She has brought forward the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill and the Protection from Stalking Bill. As my party colleague outlined, work has also begun to outlaw upskirting and to develop a victims of crime commissioner's office. That is vital work. It is essential that it proceeds quickly so that not only are clear offences created in law but a message is sent that violence against and the abuse of women and vulnerable people will not be tolerated in any way.

If we are really interested in preventative work, we also need a complete shift in social attitudes. That is why the strategy to tackle and prevent gender-based violence makes this a seminal moment. It is urgent, but the process of developing the strategy must be far-reaching and inclusive.

We are well behind our neighbours. The Irish Government have had a strategy since 2010. Only this month, the Citizens' Assembly was looking at the issue. The potential for a victims of gender-based violence commissioner was raised, although I would like there to be a focus on having fewer victims in the first place. Scotland's Equally Safe strategy focuses on preventing violence and maximising safety. Surely we must draw on that. It also has a delivery plan from 2017 that is, rightly, based on a shared approach. That will be vital here.

It is important to acknowledge that there have been some improvements in how the PSNI handles allegations of domestic abuse and attacks on women, but there is still some way to go. We need to move as swiftly as possible to continue to deliver on the recommendations in the report of the Gillen review of law and procedures in serious sexual offences.

Even getting the issue into the public domain has not been possible without the help and campaigning of the likes of Nexus, Women's Aid, Victim Support, Reclaim the Night and Raise Your Voice. As others have mentioned today, MAP has also been very prominent in keeping the agenda in the public mind. It has been responsible for raising awareness and providing emotional and practical support, without which many vulnerable victims —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

— would sadly be lost. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I begin by thanking the Members for bringing the motion and the amendment to the House, both of which I will be supporting today. As others have noted, the motion is extremely timely, given the devastatingly tragic deaths of Karen McClean and Stacy Nell. It is hard to imagine the grief that their families and friends feel at their loss, and I extend my sympathy to all of them today. Although the motion is timely because of the tragic circumstances that saw two women murdered, it is also long overdue. The senseless deaths of women before Karen and Stacy are evidence of that.

Violence against women that has not led to their death is also something that is far too common. From the beginning of October 2019 to the end of September 2020, over 32,000 domestic abuse incidents were reported across the North. Domestic abuse crimes made up almost a fifth of police recorded crime during that period. We have heard of the impact of COVID on victims of domestic violence, and those figures are a reflection of the increase in such crimes, but domestic violence rates were unacceptable long before the pandemic. Support for women in those situations has been unacceptable for far too long. From the underfunding of rape crisis services while the number of recorded rapes rose to the implementation of welfare reform, which has hindered the ability of women to leave abusive relationships because their husband is often the sole recipient of their household's earnings, the Assembly has made conscious decision after conscious decision to underfund, cut and limit the help that women across the North need in order to protect themselves. As has been referred to already, hard-working organisations such as Women's Aid and Nexus have had to fight very hard indeed for rape crisis services. Women who face intimidation and violence in their home are still eligible for fewer intimidation points than someone who is facing a paramilitary threat. What message does that send out to victims of abuse? Some of those women in abusive relationships —.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for taking an intervention. I absolutely agree with you on your point about intimidation points. It is an issue that one of our councillors has raised with Mid Ulster District Council over the last number of years. I am delighted that Minister Hargey initiated a review, which was carried on in her absence by Carál Ní Chuilín. It is an unacceptable situation and circumstance that we have had women who could not be rehomed, yet their abusers could be. I therefore absolutely agree with the Member, but I have to point out the fact that the issue is being addressed.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for her intervention. As I am sure is the case in her constituency, I hear too often in my constituency of cases of women having non-molestation orders (NMOs) and having to take action against abusive partners or ex-partners. I therefore really look forward to the work coming forward from the Minister on dealing with that.

Some of those women who are in abusive relationships have to carry their abuser's child, potentially tying them forever to that person because they still cannot access basic abortion services in our society. Basic consent and respect, to which Members have referred, is still not taught to many children in schools, despite the overwhelming evidence that such early intervention is crucial to preventing sexual crimes against women. This has already been mentioned, but it is quite shocking that we have generations and generations of young people who can access sexual images and pornography at the touch of a button when they still do not have access to proper consent classes in schools, in which young people can discuss these things openly. That really does baffle the mind. We also need to desegregate schools so that boys and girls — young men and young women — are being educated together. That is very important.

There is also the utter failure to address the lack of conviction rates for rape and assault and to put in place measures to prevent questions in court and reporting in the press that normalises the behaviour of talking about women's sexual history and, as has already been referred to, disgracefully showing their underwear in court.

How disgraceful that a Member of the Assembly attends protests outside health clinics in Newry alongside people waving traumatising images and crucifixes of women and normalises that behaviour.

Verbal and emotional abuse towards women is unacceptable and has to be challenged and called out. As I said, during the debate on the Justice Minister's Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill recently:

"The biggest challenge to gender-based violence will come from the fight against inequalities and oppression in society, which are, very often, not only enshrined by institutions but made worse and perpetrated by those in the institutions." — [Official Report (Hansard), 18 January 2021, p58, col 1].

The Minister agreed with me and said:

"We have to look at how society is structured if we are to do that successfully. It is not simply about one piece of legislation or action." — [Official Report (Hansard), 18 January 2021, p63, col 1].

At the time, I and others in the Chamber pushed for a targeted strategy for women and girls, recognising that they are overwhelmingly the victims of gender-based crime, but we were told that it was not the remit, at the time, of the Justice Minister to oversee such a strategy. I have no doubt that any such strategy should be cross-departmental, with funding committed from each Department and prioritised by various Ministers. The Department of Justice should play a leading role to tackle the ways that women are further victimised and traumatised by the criminal justice system here.

We support the motion and amendment today, which strengthens the onus on the Executive to act, and we are adamant that this issue cannot be shirked nor the buck passed. It must be prioritised and funded right across Departments.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call the First Minister to respond. The Minister will have 20 minutes.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate today. It is always good to come to a debate where there is, more or less, unanimity on where we are going. I stand here today as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister and a friend. It grieves me that we are still having this conversation about the unacceptably high levels of violence towards women and girls in Northern Ireland and, of course, right across the globe. That is the reality that we still face.

I want to join colleagues from across the Chamber and extend my condolences to the family and friends of Karen McClean and Stacey Knell at this terrible time of sadness and grief. I note, from today's local media, that the families have said that they do not want us to politicise their deaths but, rather, see them for what they were — murder. It is very important that we remember that families are grieving, because their names, like that of Sarah Everard, will be said over and over again. Sometimes that is very difficult for families to hear, but families are in such grief today. Sadly, they are not alone. A new report shows that, in the United Kingdom, a woman is killed by a man every three days.

I also share the many concerns expressed today by Members across the Chamber. I thank those who have shared their experiences. We have heard some of them. There have been some terrible stories about the experiences of too many women and girls. The Member for South Belfast Ms Bradshaw said that, after the murder of Sarah Everard, people wanted to come forward and talk about their experiences of when they were out on a Saturday evening or walking home in the evening. I am not that old that I cannot remember being at university and walking home late at night and being worried about who was watching me. I had my keys in my hand, ready to put them into the door the minute that I got there. Of course, it is totally unacceptable. We must all unite to send a clear message of zero tolerance for this behaviour, and we should all stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims. As an Executive and a community, we need to work together to address this scourge.

When I was at Queen's University, one of my favourite books as a law undergraduate was 'Eve Was Framed', by Helena — now Baroness — Kennedy, who was shining a light on the legal system and what the experience was for women, whether they were defendants or complainants or, indeed, practitioners. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. She was pointing out all the experiences that she had had as a young barrister, but she was also reflecting on the experience of female defendants and complainants at that time. There is much more that needs to happen so that women's voices in the legal system are heard in an appropriate and effective way.

As a young lawyer, I was often given the non-molestation applications — as you can imagine, it was a case of, "The young woman in the office can deal with those" — so I have some personal experience of how women were treated in the legal system, albeit about 20 years ago now and, as a young lawyer, of presenting cases to magistrates, as they were at that time. If I am honest, it was not always a positive experience, so I was pleased to hear Members — for example, the Member for Lagan Valley, Mr Givan, who was the first male to speak in the debate — reference training for the justice system and the police family. That is so needed, but, of course, we always want to do more.

The terrible murders at the weekend show once again not only that women feel afraid or under threat from danger and violence on our streets but that, for so many, the danger is in their home. For far too many women and girls, the home is not a place of sanctuary where they can feel safe but rather one of harm and violence. Those of us who live in the safety of our home and who, sometimes, long for its safety find it very difficult to understand that as being the case. Not only should we send a clear message of zero tolerance of violent behaviour, it is critical that we tackle the root causes of the behaviours that women and girls experience in their daily lives.

Members have spoken quite a lot this afternoon about co-design. That is important for the new strategy. Obviously, there are key stakeholders, and many have mentioned the wonderful work of Women's Aid across Northern Ireland and others. However, I feel that it is important that we also engage with young women in the design of the strategy so that we hear their voices and experiences and that we are not just hearing from the stakeholders, important as that is.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Yes, I will, absolutely.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the Minister's words. Would you also agree that there is a perception that it is just young women? Violence is directed towards all women equally, and older women are more hesitant to come forward and tell their story.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for that point. It is important. I remember one terrible sexual assault and rape case involving a pensioner. It was horrendous to listen to the details. I absolutely agree with the Member that there is a need to speak to older people and even, perhaps, to engage with the Older People's Commissioner as well.

Social media has been mentioned, and I and many others have spoken in the House about the personal abuse that we have suffered as public representatives, much of it based on sexist and outdated attitudes; indeed, it is a sad reality that women in public life endure that type of hate on a regular if not daily basis. It is indicative of the sheer extent of the problems in society and demonstrates a deeply rooted hate and prejudice that is, sadly, something that social media seem to have exacerbated. It needs to be dealt with, and I agree with my friend, the Member for Lagan Valley, Mr Givan, when he says that Westminster must take steps on the matter. I know that colleagues in Westminster are raising that issue.

It is the underlying sexism and misogyny that give rise to domestic abuse, violence, injury and the murder of women and girls.

We need to make cultural and societal change in order to ensure that there are healthy behaviours and attitudes towards women and girls. We need preventative initiatives that build on positive experiences and work with a proven track record that actually makes a difference. While good work is being carried out, I agree absolutely that more needs to be done. It is critical that we tackle those attitudes at the earliest opportunity through education, community initiatives and in homes right across Northern Ireland.

I welcome that the Executive and the Assembly have been able to prioritise action to tackle domestic and sexual violence and abuse as well as stalking and harassment since the restoration of the institutions in January last year. That was a recognition of the serious issues that are involved, the lack of progress on them in Northern Ireland compared with elsewhere and the need to take urgent action. I also note what has been said today about hate crime and misogyny. I know that there has been some consideration of those in the hate crime review, and we will closely examine those recommendations and the consideration of the proposals that I know is happening elsewhere across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the First Minister for taking the intervention. Obviously, we are late coming out of the blocks on the violence against women and girls strategy, but that gives us an opportunity to learn from the other strategies across these islands, such as those in Scotland, Wales, England, and in the Twenty-six Counties, where they are on their second strategy, covering 2016-2021. We should try to learn from good and bad practice in all those strategies.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

That is a very important point. Part of the delay is, obviously, because this place was not functioning for three years. If you look at some of the strategies that are in place, you will see that they came into being around that time, albeit the Republic of Ireland's strategy has been in place for longer. Certainly, the strategies in England, Wales and Scotland were made at that time. It is good that we can learn from what is in place in those jurisdictions.

As I say, there has been consideration of the hate crime review. We will look at those recommendations and take into account what is happening across the UK. It is also important that any proposed action on this is workable and that it genuinely tackles violence against women and girls. Undoubtedly, the issue will require the careful consideration of all the potential implications. In that context, we are debating the specific issue of the dedicated strategy to tackle gender-based violence and abuse. The action is urgent and most needed. We recognise that our neighbouring jurisdictions, as pointed out, have strategies in place, and we will, of course, look at them and take them into account. Northern Ireland also needs to take action and give dedicated consideration to how best to change behaviours and protect women and girls. No woman or girl should live in violence.

I listened very carefully to what the Member for East Londonderry Ms Hunter had to say about students and their experience of sexual violence. It is not just sexual violence that young women at university have to deal with; it is general violence as well, and, unfortunately, for some political activists whom I have been associated with in my party, there is also politically based intimidation and threats towards young women who are identified as vulnerable because they are young unionists in a university setting in Northern Ireland. That is totally unacceptable. We always have to make space for difference and for people to be allowed to articulate their political viewpoint. I find it so offensive that young women who identify as unionists at Queen's University in Belfast are under threat and are intimidated. It has to stop. I hope that we can also address that in any strategy.

I welcome that the Assembly and Executive are considering all those matters. I am committed to being a champion for supporting meaningful actions to produce real results. I am fully supportive of the task force that will examine all the suggestions that have been made today and that will look at those and other strategies in other jurisdictions in order to identify what we need to do and what actions we need to put in place.

It is a matter of huge sorrow to me that, once again, there are families and friends grieving today due to violence against women.

It grieves me that there are many homes across Northern Ireland where there are women and young children living in fear of violence. It is an issue that we can unite on, with a firm commitment to work collaboratively to do all that we can as public representatives to help and support all those women and girls to live a life free from fear, pain and violence.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call Rachel Woods to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. The Member has five minutes.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

In my closing remarks, I thank all those who have indicated their support and highlighted the reasons why the changes that we need are so significant for victims of violence, abuse, harassment and misogyny. All the Members who spoke have touched on the need for a strategy; the need for things to change; the need for the experience of victims to be reflected; the need for education on consent, respect and being believed; and the need for support and help. I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for being here today. I also thank the First Minister for her comments. There is a shared will across the Chamber to do something. As the First Minister said, there is unanimity across the Chamber on the need to tackle the root causes of the reality that faces women and girls across Northern Ireland and to listen to their lived experience. I recognise that producing a violence against women and girls strategy is the responsibility of the whole Executive. Each Minister and Department needs to consider what is within their remit and how they will contribute to the changes that we need to see. It is clear that what we have been doing is not working. Something needs to change. Women have been failed for too long.

As noted in the 'Belfast Telegraph' today, eight women have been killed in Northern Ireland since our society and economy were first plunged into lockdown in March last year. That does not include a mother and her daughter who were murdered in the previous March in Newry. They will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are with them and their loved ones. I do not want to be back here in several weeks, months or years to hear about more women being murdered or to ask and urge the Executive to do what we already know needs to be done.

The time for action is now. We need to stop neutralising gender in government policies. We must recognise how gender norms shape identity, desires, practices and behaviours. We must teach our young people how gender norms can be harmful and negatively influence people's choices and behaviour, and we must acknowledge that gender roles and expectations can be changed. Those social constructs are not set in stone. They are learned behaviours, and they can be changed. We must recognise gender-based violence and understand that our ideas about gender and gender stereotypes can affect how we treat other people. That includes discrimination and violence, which includes bullying, sexual harassment, psychological violence, domestic violence and abuse, rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and homophobic and transphobic violence and abuse. We must acknowledge that all forms of gender-based violence are wrong and a violation of human rights.

We need to teach our young people how gender stereotypes can contribute to bullying, discrimination, abuse and violence and explain that sexual abuse and gender-based violence are crimes about power and dominance, not about one's inability to control one's sexual desire. We need to recognise that gender inequality and gender role stereotypes contribute to gender-based violence. We need to demonstrate ways to argue for gender equality and to stand up to gender discrimination or gender-based violence. Those are all points taken from UNESCO's guidance on comprehensive sexuality education. It needs to happen for Northern Ireland.

A strategy is better late than never. Proper resourcing and implementation will be the ultimate test for the Executive. We do not want some words on a page that gathers dust on a shelf. We need change and action. We must rely on evidence-based policies and interventions to ignite and sustain wider societal change. The research, reports and recommendations are all done and are there in front of us. We need to get it done. Let us get it done together. I commend the motion, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call Justin McNulty to make a winding-up speech on the motion. I advise the Member that he has 10 minutes.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank every Member wholeheartedly for their impassioned contributions today. I rise with a deep sense of sadness in my heart to speak on this sensitive and crucial motion on a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. It is so sad that the North of Ireland has the highest rate of domestic violence in Europe. Why? There have been eight violent deaths and over 32,000 instances of domestic violence since lockdown began. My heart bleeds for the women and girls who feel unsafe in their own homes. My heart bleeds.

I spoke to Women's Aid. What a powerful force for good and what a wonderful organisation it is. Its representatives say that we need early intervention and prevention, with frameworks for teaching children and young people about trust, equality, respect, consent and healthy relationships. Women's Aid knows that males need to be included in that. It wants men and boys to have the confidence to call out and challenge threatening or abusive attitudes towards women. It says that men should be as horrified by the stats as women are. I am. From that perspective, I wholeheartedly support Judge Gillen's recommendations.

Women's Aid says that the system is totally bent towards perpetrators being able to abuse women and children. How can it feel like that in 2021? If there is an instance of violence in a pub, the perpetrator is charged and goes to jail. If it happens in the home, the perpetrator gets away with it. Perpetrators get legal aid while victims have to finance their own justice, but they never get there. How can that be? The system aids and abets perpetrators. The experience of many women is that of fear, shame, guilt and trepidation. They worry about their safety while in their own homes and live 24/7 under the threat of constant violence and abuse.

Those women know that physical wounds can be healed, but emotional and mental wounds are much more insidious, and it takes much more to recover from them. Under that constant threat and coercive control, these women are living in an environment of sheer hell in their own homes. That is why Women's Aid and the safe refuge that it provides are so important.

We must also remember the suicides, which are not included in the stats. Trauma, fear and despair have driven many women to take their own lives.

Sadly, we are all aware of the stark data that shows that instances of domestic violence have escalated during the pandemic. Women's Aid says that lockdown has inadvertently created a perfect storm for domestic violence. The "Stay at home" message has been devastating for many women and girls for whom home is not a safe place.

There is a 15-year high of instances of domestic violence in the North. What do you think happened to funding for Women's Aid here during that escalation? The funding went down. How can we explain that? How can we justify that? How can that be acceptable? I am disgusted.

Women's Aid welcomes the U-turn by the Minister. The Minister is on record as previously wanting to stay gender-neutral. Today's debate shows that that position is at odds with Members' views.

I place on record my thanks to Women's Aid and to my colleague Sinéad Bradley, who no doubt strongly influenced the Minister's change of position. However, nobody will take away from the greatest influence of all in this sensitive issue: the sad deaths of women over recent months, all the instances of domestic violence and the fear and threats experienced by women in their own homes.

I will touch on Members' contributions. Proposing the motion, Sinéad Bradley stated strongly that she wants to make this place, our shared home, a safe place for women and girls. It is simply not good enough that we lag behind other parts of these islands in protections and supports for women and girls. The need for us to keep women and girls safe cannot be overstated.

Rachel Woods said that the system was not working. The problem is male violence against women and girls. It is very sad that, despite the issue having been raised by Women's Aid, it has taken so long for action to be taken, and women have lost their lives. A focus on identity issues to the detriment of keeping women and girls safe is wrong. Flags do not protect women in their homes.

Pam Cameron said that one in five women in the UK will experience a sexual assault. That is shocking and disgusting. Linda Dillon expressed her condolences to all families who have lost loved ones to domestic violence. Kellie Armstrong wanted to send out a clear signal to all that acts of violence against women and children are wrong and will not be tolerated.

Rosemary Barton said that gender violence against women is systematic abuse to reinforce power over them. Women are left with physical and non-physical wounds. Since lockdown, the number of women who have experienced a domestic violence incident has doubled.

Paul Givan stated his support for a gendered strategy that focuses on tackling violence against women and girls. Nicola Brogan said that violence against women was about power and that the police and the PPS needed to pursue perpetrators.

Emma Sheerin spoke about her Sinn Féin values. She said that she was disgusted at how horrific it is for rape victims to be made to feel like the guilty party. Cara Hunter said that there is no room for complacency when women face misogynistic abuse every day. She said that we have to teach society to respect women.

Gerry Kelly said that this was about women and girls. He said that, in 82% of intimate partner homicides, women are the victims. Paula Bradshaw said that this is a seminal moment in tackling gender-based violence, and we all agree with that.

Gerry Carroll said that women facing intimidation in the home get fewer intimidation points than those who claim to have received paramilitary threats. How can that be justified? The First Minister said that she saw the deaths of the victims of domestic violence for what they were — murder. She wants to stand shoulder to shoulder with every one of those victims, and I think that everybody in the House stands shoulder to shoulder with those victims.

Thank you all for your contributions. I support the motion and the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly condemns violence against women and girls in all forms; notes with concern that Northern Ireland is the only place on these islands that does not have a specific strategy to tackle gender-based violence and abuse; regrets that the Executive are failing to meet their international obligations in this regard; and calls on the Executive to take immediate action to eliminate gender-based violence by introducing a violence against women and girls strategy that is fully resourced and underpinned by legislation to make misogyny a hate crime, and to introduce standardised, comprehensive relationships and sexuality education in our schools to eradicate sexist attitudes and build lifelong, positive relationships.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 5:15 pm, 23rd March 2021

I ask Members to take their ease for a moment before we move to the next item of business.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Order. I ask Members who are not participating in the Adjournment debate to take their leave of the Chamber.

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]