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International Women's Day is over 100 years old, but violence against women and girls persists

3 min read

International Women’s Day began over a hundred years ago as a campaign for women’s freedom from discrimination.

International Women’s Day began over a hundred years ago as a campaign for women’s freedom from discrimination. Yet violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the UK is still so commonplace that it was flagged as a ‘national threat’ by the Home Office just last month.

The government has recognised the need to act and new legislation means that convicts of controlling or coercive behaviour will be filed on the Violent and Sex Offender Register, and could even be electronically tagged. The government is right to clamp down harder on these offenders – 89% of women had said it would make them feel safer.

But there is a major caveat: to be listed on the register, offenders must have been sentenced for at least a year. And sentencing rates for domestic violence and sexual offences are notoriously low.

In 2020-21, just 3.5% of reported sexual offences resulted in conviction, drastically low compared to, say, 21% for drug offences or 10% for robbery. Generally, it is not a problem with identifying the attacker - 29% of women in the UK have experienced sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner.

The most common reason sexual offences do not progress is because the victim does not wish to proceed. This must end. It’s a combination of shame, fear and, for 33% of victims, it is the concern that the police cannot help. As a result, they live with domestic abuse for on average two to three years before seeking help.

Identifying and preventing violence against women and girls is currently missing from school PSHE curriculum and teacher training. Universities often hold sexual consent workshops, but don’t follow up on non-attendance. The police aren’t doing much better. Forces in England and Wales had no record of who had been trained in dealing with sexual offence victims, nor if that training had been effective. Clearly, as a society we are ill-equipped to tackle violence against women and girls.

To make the most of the new legislation, the government must accompany sentencing measures with tools to help victims report crimes and give them reason to trust the system. Some schemes are showing how this is possible.

The ‘Ask for ANI’ (Action Needed Now) scheme being rolled into job centres as well as pharmacies is good news indeed. But we need more, discrete and localised variations of ANI in bus shelters, school pickups, public toilets – expanding access whilst maintaining subtlety.

Embedding anti-violence against women answers in society is proving to be more effective at changing attitudes. A trial in Stoke-on-Trent wove domestic abuse prevention tuition into music and literature lessons, tackling experiences of domestic abuse, while geography and maths investigated prevalence around the world.

One solution may be a public campaign to draw attention to the signs of domestic abuse. Withdrawal from social events, low self-esteem, reluctance to spend money, can all weigh in as circumstantial evidence in court. The definition of VAWG keeps expanding, rightly so, but bystanders need to be clued in.

Police need mandatory, consistent victim-assistance training if they are seen to be taking violence against women as seriously as other national threats.

While legal protections send the clear message that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated, they don’t confront the hidden nature of domestic violence, or its causes. We need to help victims and those around them to first understand that they are victims, and then help them to access justice.

Phoebe Bunt is a policy researcher at Onward

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