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From building sites to women's rights

Over the years I’ve become all too familiar with the issue of violence against women and girls, both at the global and domestic level. This week at Amnesty we’ve called on the UK Government to do more to support women in Afghanistan, urged them to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, and pressed for a strategic approach to the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.

Over the years I have worked with, and met, some amazing and inspirational women who have offered me insight into the control and power dynamics, inequalities and prejudices that perpetuate violence against women and girls. Of course, these variants will differ from country to country, culture to culture, but one variant remains constant – MEN.

Earlier this week the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) launched a new report ‘Deeds or Words?’, which offers some really useful analysis of the UK Government’s actions to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG).

The report got me thinking about the challenges that confront us all on this issue, one that affects one in three girls directly and all of us indirectly. The report offers an easy to follow score-card approach that analyses specific government efforts undertaken (or not as the case may be) to challenge this.

While I like to think of myself a ‘re-constructed’ male who understands the power politics at play in societies,  I have to confess I still struggle to understand the complexities and interconnected relationships at play here. I sometimes wonder whether this has anything to do with my working-class background, or is it due to the fact I spent the first 15 years after leaving school working on building sites? An environment not exactly conducive to discussions on post-modern feminism and power dynamics. In reality I know that this isn’t the case, violence against women and girls is not class specific and it would be ridiculous to assume that every bloke working on a building site is sexist or worse.

However, it strikes me that there are a set of norms in society that we fail to challenge – and when I say we – I mean men. I have great respect for the feminist movement/s. They’ve done and continue to do amazing work addressing inequalities, raising awareness and forcing governments to act in order to address gender discrimination. However, despite all of the progress made it never ceases to amaze when I hear or learn of casual sexism that continues to permeate all aspects of everyday life in Britain. If you’re in any doubt that this about this, check out the excellent work of the everyday sexism project.

So one of the key challenges is how we educate boys and men to challenge the sexist norms that underpin the causes of violence against women and girls. This is one point that EVAW suggest should be a priority, arguing that government needs to develop and deliver a ‘whole school approach’ to prevent violence and discrimination across the primary and secondary education system. Unfortunately, the government score a big fat zero out of ten on this!  I think this is an excellent idea and one that should be grabbed by both the government and opposition.

If we are to create a genuine shift in attitudes to women and girls, it needs to begin at an early age. It is they, the next generation who will be running our agencies and institutions in the future. It is they who will be the advertising executives, the stand-up comedians and even the building site workers.

It is perhaps apt that the report arrives in the week that the family of Maria Stubbings  and Refuge have joined forces with 38 Degrees to lobby the Government to open a public inquiry into the response of the police and other state agencies to victims of domestic violence.  Maria was murdered by her former partner, despite making repeated calls for help to Essex Police, and despite them knowing that he had previously murdered a former girlfriend in Germany. The story is horrendous, and as the petition explains it is far from isolated.

Most of the judges that hand down lenient sentences to rapist and domestic abusers are men. The majority of our legislators are men. There are still only 147 women MP’s in parliament, just 22% after 95 years of universal suffrage!

There is clearly still a lot to do to end VAWG. The Home Office has documented that in 2012 around 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse, over 400,000 women were sexually assaulted, 60,000 women were raped and thousands more were stalked. The World Bank has recognised the global scale of this problem and argues that as well as it being a human rights and social health issue, it is also an economic one. A study done in the UK estimated that the full costs of violence - the pain and suffering, the burden on the health system and other services, the justice system, lost wages and productivity, as well as the impact on the next generation amounted to £29 billion in the UK alone.

This is a crisis, so let’s see the government adopt EVAW’s recommendations. Let’s see the Labour Party adopt them under its policy review. Let’s see all parties ensure that they are in their manifestos.  And let’s work together to create the environment to truly end violence against women and girls.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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