International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

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Dr Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, comments on why recognising the subject of violence against women has never been more relevant than it is now.

25 November marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, followed by 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

On this day, communities reflect on the damage caused by violence against women and its impact on women, children, men, and societies around the globe.

As well as acknowledging the harm that violence against women causes, 25 November is also a day to celebrate the achievements of a movement which seeks to eradicate the gendered violence which many face every day. To recognise the men and women who work to support victims and perpetrators, to challenge abusive behaviours within societies across the world, and to stand up to the causes of violence by naming misogyny and oppression in its many forms.

At the Centre for Gender and Violence Research based at the University of Bristol, we know only too well about the experience and impact of gendered abuse. Researchers are currently engaged in projects speaking to victims and perpetrators of a wide range of abuses; collecting official data from the police and other statutory bodies; working with refugee communities to address violence against women during displacement; and working with a range of non- governmental organisation (NGO) partners to ensure that research makes a difference in the world.

So, along with our partners in the UK, Europe, and internationally, we mark 25 November as a day to recognise the achievements of a social movement which still has many uphill struggles to face.

In addition to the consistently high rates of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence which are experienced every year, this year in particular is a poignant year. Women’s rights have been attacked in a number of countries around the world: Poland and its attempts to restrict access to safe abortions; US presidential candidates’ “locker-room banter” about grabbing women whether they want it or not; the re-trial of a footballer on the basis of the introduction of evidence about the victim’s sexual history; and the crowning of Bono as one of Glamour magazines “women of the year”.

Okay, so the last one isn’t quite an obvious offence to women and equality – he does a lot of work about poverty and its impacts on women- but in a world where over half the population is female, it would be nice if an honour for women were given to one!

These examples show the struggles which we face to challenge the oppression which underpins gendered violence and abuse. They also show us the power of solidarity in the many acts of resistance they evoke. Polish women striking and taking to the streets against the attack on their already limited rights. Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech about the everyday reality of sexism and misogyny. Government reaction to the use of sexual history in sexual assault cases. We have yet to see how sisters uncut respond to Bono but you can be assured it will be creative and fitting!

Of course we also face an additional challenge in the UK with the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union. The Centre for Gender and Violence Research in Bristol has a long tradition of working with European partners and we regularly meet to identify the emerging challenges which threaten the elimination of violence against women.

Whilst the terms of Brexit remain unclear, we continue to appreciate the importance and power of a global network of campaigners, researchers, and activists challenging the status quo and fighting for women’s human rights.

In Spring 2017, the Centre will be launching a new Journal of Gender-Based Violence. This is the first European- based international journal focusing specifically on this type of violence and abuse. We believe that now, more than ever, we need a space where evidence, policy, and ways of tackling gender-based violence across national borders, can be shared. It will provide a critical space in which we can continue to learn from one another and recognise the connectivity between the different challenges we face.

To articulate how far we still have to go, take a moment to look at the predicament of women worldwide below. (Infographic reproduced with kind permission from United Nations Women).

infographic-violence-against-women-en-11x17-no-bleeds

Child Sexual Exploitation: Groundhog day

Emma Williamson and Natasha Mulvihill, Centre for Gender and Violence Research

The report into the abuse and sexual exploitation of children and young people in Rotherham[i] whilst shocking, is not a surprise. The report comes in a long line of reports, inquiries, research, and reviews which are consistent in their findings. That victims have been ignored or not believed; that busy professionals have been unable (for a variety of reasons) to respond appropriately; that officials have not adequately prioritised the work of those on the front line; and that existing legislation is not being used even in cases where it could be, to tackle the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

As British actor Samantha Morton made clear in her recent interview, every incident of child sexual abuse is a life sentence for that individual, their families, and those around them.

As calls for yet another inquiry are made, maybe this is the time to take a different approach. A recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report, published in April 2014, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that in terms of child sexual exploitation “justice cannot currently be served due to the lack of a specific offence”. The recommendation of this report was that “existing offences could be used more effectively”.  Sheila Taylor, CEO of NWG Network, in recent news interviews and her own press release, highlighted how their organisation had compiled the recommendations from 16 recent relevant reports which resulted in up to 400 recommendations. The result, she suggests is that practitioners are overwhelmed, frustrated, and struggle to implement the findings from a report before a new one comes out. Ms Taylor suggests, and we would wholeheartedly agree with her, that maybe that money would be better spent on dedicated, ring fenced, services to implement the recommendations we already have and provide the much needed victim-focused services which are clearly needed.

Too often the response to inquiries, reviews, and reports by the time they come out, however damning, are that lessons have been learnt and changes made. The scandal which we need to face is why this keeps happening if lessons have been learnt? What happens in these areas when the glare of the media spotlight disappears and victims once again become the target of perpetrators whose behaviour society allows to go unchallenged?

Our recent evaluation of a specialist service working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation[ii] is that lessons haven’t been learnt. Austerity is impacting on the ability of statutory services, the police, social services, and youth services, to deal with the cases that fall onto their desks, let alone going out and finding what are hidden and difficult cases to deal with. Too often the services for those in need, as opposed to those where there is a statutory responsibility to intervene, are restricted, where they exist, to short term interventions. It beggars belief that commissioners think that someone being groomed for sexual exploitation would be identified, supported to recognise the abuse, and disclose that abuse in the 6 week support packages currently written into so many service contracts. Those being exploited need specialist support, over a long period of time, and for there to be coordinated responses between the police and support workers. All of that costs money which is increasingly difficult for local authorities and voluntary services to find.

Given the difficulties faced by service providers with ever increasing workloads and limited specialist service providers where they can send clients, it is not surprising that victims end up falling through the net. The vulnerabilities which perpetrators target victims for, are the same that allow agencies under pressure to perceive these victims as difficult and un-credible.

Rather than waste yet more money on an inquiry, the responses to which we have heard before, maybe the government and all political parties should commit to 10 years of ring fenced funding for the establishment of a national response. This should include specialist sexual exploitation workers to support victims in every area of the country and specialist dedicated police officers in those areas to use every law at their disposal to target perpetrators so it is their behaviour under the spotlight and not that of the victim.  Where this has happened in local areas, real progress has been made.  We need the same concerted effort nationally to tackle this problem.

The authors can be contacted at nm8543@bris.ac.uk and e.williamson@bris.ac.uk 

This blog was originally posted on the PolicyBristol blog. 

[i] Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

[ii] Mulvihill, N. and Williamson, E. (2014) An Evaluation of the GDVSAP Trafficking and Grooming Project, Gloucester, UK.  Bristol: Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol.