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A ‘watershed moment’? Cross-party calls to tackle violence against women

Violence against women
One of the messages that appeared on the High Street, Dundee, following the murder of Sarah Everard in London.

The national outpouring of “anger and fear” among women and girls over the harassment and violence they face has prompted Scotland’s main political parties to commit to action ahead of May’s Holyrood election.

A national conversation was sparked following the death of Sarah Everard with women across the country sharing their own personal, and often harrowing, stories of harassment, violence and abuse, with calls for the moment to mark a “watershed”  in the fight against misogyny.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats last week wrote to the leaders of the other major parties in Scotland to set out proposals for a commission to prevent violence against women. 

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for UN Women found that 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, rising to 86% among 18 to 24-year-olds.

Under the Liberal Democrat proposal, the commission would report its findings within a year of the new parliament being formed.

It would be separate from a newly created working group on misogyny, set up by the Scottish Government and led by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, while reflecting and building on any recommendations it makes.

‘Everybody has a story to tell’

Caron Lindsay, the party’s equalities spokesperson, says: “We feel we need to do something big in response to the outpouring of anger and fear amongst women.

“Everybody has a story to tell about some time where they didn’t feel safe on the streets.

“In the pandemic we’ve seen such a rise in domestic abuse, so often women don’t feel safe in their own homes, either; sometimes they don’t feel safe at work. Girls often don’t feel safe at school.

Caron Lindsay, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ equalities spokeswoman, supports proposals for a commission to prevent violence against women.

“We need to look at all this, it’s got to be about changing the culture, it’s got to be looking at all the different areas of government.”

She adds: “We think this is something that every political party can get behind and put in their manifestos for the election because then it will happen.

“And it will be a really powerful signal to women that politicians understand their anger and their fear and they’re going to do something about it.”

Ms Lindsay, who was threatened by a man a couple of years ago near her home, says the response from the police was inadequate.

She adds: “By the time the police came to take my statement, six days later, what seems to have been the same guy tried the same stunt in the path behind my house.”

‘Everyday reality for women’

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman and north-east MSP Liam Kerr describes reading the everyday experiences of women across the country as “horrifying”.

“As a man I have a very different experience of walking down the street to a lone female but also even with all of that background and the experiences that I have had and seen with my female friends, I didn’t know the half of it,” he says.

“And reading about women’s experience of something as mundane as going to the local shops was terrifying.

“It showed me what was happening in reality but it also terrified me that it made me realise just how ignorant I am despite what I thought I knew.

Liam Kerr MSP.

“It was hugely powerful to read those testimonies and somewhat humbling this is not news to women. It might be news to me and my many colleagues but it’s just the everyday reality for an awful lot of women, which is awful.”

Key among his party’s proposals in this area is a commitment to reopen the Hate Crime Bill and to specifically ensure women are offered protection by including sex as a protected characteristic.

This follows an outcry by some women’s rights campaigners over the exclusion of women from the legislation.

However, a misogyny working group has been created, with the support of some women’s groups including Engender, and led by Baroness Kennedy, which will report back its findings in a year.

The Scottish Conservatives also want to bring in a victims’ law that would look to ditch curbs on jail sentences of less than 12 months.

Mr Kerr points to domestic abuse victims, who are disproportionately women, who he claims are often being denied a “breathing space” from their perpetrators as a direct result of the move.

It follows the Michelle’s Law campaign – named after Michelle Stewart, whose killer was approved for temporary release.

One of the campaign’s asks is the introduction of tougher exclusion zones for prisoners out on temporary release or parole – a proposal backed by the Scottish Conservatives.

The party would also be open to looking again at the not proven verdict – which Rape Crisis Scotland has campaigned to bring to an end – and the Tories also support introducing a Local Policing Act to get more police out on patrol.

On the proposal for a commission to tackle violence against women, Mr Kerr says: “If the Liberals have ideas around establishing what’s going on and finding out what the underlying challenges are, both societal and potentially legal, and coming up with ways to address them, then it seems to me that has got to be a good thing.”

‘Misogyny needs called out’

The SNP’s Gillian Martin says she would welcome a “national conversation” on how sexual harassment is tackled in Scotland, not just in terms of law-making but also in terms of “culture and attitude”.

The Aberdeenshire East MSP believes the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against former First Minister Alex Salmond shows the “need to see every organisation looking afresh at their policies and procedures”.

Gillian Martin MSP.

But the SNP politician claims the country must first act to “tackle the root cause of sexual harassment, which is largely some men’s behaviour, and entitlement”.

She adds: “I’d like to see men pledge to call out harassment when they see it, because it’s their problem to solve.

“Casual everyday sexism and misogyny needs called out, not just by women.

“It’s not easy and it can be very uncomfortable but, my goodness, if more men called out friends who indulge it, we’d soon see a change.

“We need a zero-tolerance approach at every level, particularly online where it seems to be getting worse and worse by the day.”

A ‘talking shop’?

Rhoda Grant, Scottish Labour MSP for Highlands and Islands region, says her party has always had a “zero-tolerance approach” to violence against women, including domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Rhoda Grant MSP.

She said: “We would be looking to build on that and to continue progress on that. We also need to understand that it’s not just about protecting women, it’s about educating men.

“Women shouldn’t have to alter their behaviour because of a minority of men who seek to abuse and we need to call men out for that.”

Ms Grant said it is “ingrained” in women to look out for their own safety, with “women always knowing they are at risk”.

“I wish there had been more progress”, she adds. “Sometimes I think things are going back the way.

“Young people are now learning their sex education off porn and that gives them a very strange idea on what relationships should be about.

“We really have to start teaching children, quite young, about respect in relationships and also give them access to have those questions answered.”

On the proposal for a commission to be set up, the Scottish Labour MSP claims she would be “supportive of anything that tackles the issue”.

But she does have a concern that commissions become a “talking shop” when society already “knows where the problems lie”.

She continues: “We know that the way we deal with this is to ensure that women are equal and then we need to weed out inequality in our society.

“That starts at a very early age and then into the workplace where we have gendered pay. We have an Equal Pay Act which is 15 years old and still being ignored by a lot of employers.

Violence against women
Demonstrators during a protest in Dublin organised in remembrance of murdered Sarah Everard and in protest of continued violence against women.

“There have been a number of watershed moments and I think it’s sad that it takes the murder of a young woman walking home to pull people up short and say, ‘what on earth is wrong with our society?’

“But, at the same time, we need to try to keep this going, to try to keep the awareness being raised going.”

‘Structural inequality’

“In many ways we know what’s wrong, we know what the problem is,” says Maggie Chapman, lead candidate for the Scottish Greens in the north-east region.

She believes the root of violence against women is the “deep structural gender inequality that exists in society” and says now is the time for action, not words.

Violence against women
Scottish Greens candidate Maggie Chapman.

Ms Chapman, who is also centre director for Edinburgh Rape Crisis, adds: “We need action, not just more talk about what’s going on.

“We need very clear commitments at every level of society that men’s violence against women is unacceptable and it’s not just the violence that is unacceptable, it’s the structural inequality that creates the space for that violence to happen.

“I kind of feel the time for talking is over. We need to get on and fix it.”

In terms of direct policy interventions which could be taken, Ms Chapman says gender-based violence education must be be rolled out across primary schools and complainants and survivors must be given a “voice” within the criminal justice system.

She adds: “There needs to be a very clear commitment from all levels of government that services that are primarily provided for and received by women, whether it’s domestic abuse services or sexual violence services, need to not only be properly funded but seen as part of the intrinsic support services that we as a society provide.”

Ms Chapman continues: “We need to make it a watershed moment. Men need to stand up and say they will look at themselves, they will challenge their own behaviour, they will challenge each other’s behaviour.

“Even the good men, even the allies, need to be very clear that this isn’t a problem that women need to solve for themselves. It’s a problem for all of society to look at collectively and the perpetrators need to be front and centre of that.”

Violence against women
A group of women look at floral tributes left at the bandstand in Clapham Common, London, for Sarah Everard.

Alys Mumford, of Engender, Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation, said harassment “permeates almost every aspect of the lives of women and girls, constraining choices and the ways we think about ourselves throughout our life courses, from childhood to old age”.

She adds: “We need parties to support the work to explore targeted responses to gaps in the law which allows this harassment and violence to continue, as well as committing to fund specialist violence against women services which support women across Scotland.

“We need action to increase understanding of violence against women in our schools, our workplaces and our public spaces, and to create a criminal justice system which women can believe in.”