Alarming levels of violence against women continue to undermine real progress towards gender equality.
Our world has changed beyond recognition in the last fifty years. Now, we would raise a smile at the line “Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house..” from a recently republished 1950s Good Wife Guide. So what would a baby girl born today expect from her life? She may buy a house securing a mortgage without a male guarantor, almost certainly return to work after starting a family. She would expect equal treatment in her job and more broadly in her life.
However before we congratulate ourselves on the new freedoms for women in modern Britain there is a darker side to this debate. Statistics on the number of women experiencing violence paint an altogether more frightening picture. Each year some three million women will experience violence in one form or another: rape, or the threat of it; assault; intimidation through stalking; sexual abuse, either by a member of their own family or someone they know; genital mutilation and forced marriage.
While we have seen some significant changes to society’s view of women it seems some attitudes are taking longer to change. There is evidence of an undeclared war against some women. A previous survey by the End Violence against Women coalition showed that 42 percent of young people know girls whose boyfriends have hit them. A remarkable 40 percent knew girls who had been pressurised into sex; yet 27 percent thought it was acceptable for a boy to “expect to have sex with a girl if the girl had been “very flirtatious”.
Clearly, we need to do more about the attitude to girls shown by many boys. We need to boost the self-esteem of girls in the way being promoted by organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. We need to avoid any public attitudes that suggest that some kinds of assault or rape are somehow more forgivable than others. Rape is rape; violence is violence and no means no. The law must reflect that and be fully enforced.
Sadly these attitudes are only part of the problem. A survey, Map of Gaps, published in November by the Commission in partnership with the End Violence against Women coalition exposed a worrying lack of services. In fact most women in the UK have no access to a Rape Crisis Centre and less than one quarter of local authorities have any sexual violence services at all. The services that do exist at all are buckling under the pressure with help lines engaged and refuges full. In short, what we have is a postcode lottery. But the thing about lotteries is that most people lose. This is why the Commission is calling on the Government and local authorities to take more action and consider more funding for specialised support services.
So while in 2008 no one would believe a wife has “no right to question” and women’s employment rights are seen as essential, we mustn’t forget that women also have a basic right to seek support and protection from violence. It is here that the Commission has a role to play, as the regulator of public bodies in respect of their equality duties.
That is why I am putting every public authority, that is, local councils, police authorities and others – on notice. In nine months’ time we will be asking public authorities where they stand. If they don’t measure up, they can expect to be named publicly. If they don’t act, they will see us at their doors with compliance notices. Our world may have changed beyond recognition but there are still many important battles to be fought. And won.
Trevor Phillips is chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Source: New Statesman – 24 March 2008