Prevention & education is needed

It’s been a difficult week for women whose lives have been affected by sexual violence.

The constant conversation on radio and TV about the horrific rape and murder of Sarah Everard, and the ensuing hand wringing about the behaviour of the police, has made it hard for anyone to switch off from the issue.

And now another policeman from the Met has been charged with rape, which will only add fuel to the media fire.

For those of us working in the Violence Against Women and Girls sector it has been difficult to switch on the radio and hear endless pathetic responses from our political and police leaders, saying ‘something must be done’ about an issue the sector has been working on for decades.

For those women who have direct experience of sexual violence by men, it is traumatic.

And we know this, because yet again the phone has been ringing off the hook at Devon Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Services. We ended September with the second highest monthly referral rate we’ve ever seen.

There will be many people listening to the news who think ‘is this really still an issue? Didn’t we deal with this decades ago?’. People who don’t are unaware that all around them are women who have experienced sexual harassment and violence of every degree, from daily catcalling in the street to indecent exposure, groping, unwanted sexual advances, assault and rape. And all around them are men who have thought nothing of shouting at women in the street, touching them in a crowded train or pub or much worse.

Yet a recent survey of over 22,000 women showed that 99.7% of respondents had been repeatedly subjected to violence including assaults, harassment and rape. This is the largest and most comprehensive record of violence committed against girls and women in the UK and suggests the problem is even worse than previously reported.

Is there misogyny in our police force? Of course there is – and it would appear the Met has a particular problem. Misogyny runs through our society like words through a stick of rock.

In an institution where men outnumber women by three to one it would be surprising if it was anything but misogynistic in today’s culture.

The number of stories coming out over the last few days of women who have been ignored, silenced or assaulted by serving police officers is deeply shocking – but why should we be shocked when there is a total lack of leadership from our elected politicians to drive systemic culture change?

Where are the leaders talking like Jackson Katz about how this is not a women’s problem, but a man’s problem? A problem for society.

Where is the commitment to embedding education on healthy relationships starting with our very youngest children?

Where is the commitment to invest in small-scale, impactful prevention work with all of our boys and young men to teach them about healthy relationships, respect for women, and how to be a good bystander?

There are good men out there – we all know this – but why do they not call out their friends, colleagues and peers for poor behaviour?

Why do school leaders not nip insulting and harmful behaviour in the bud before it becomes embedded?

Why do we never hear our political leaders talking about reigning in the porn industry?

Why is the responsibility constantly put on women to be careful where they go, change the way they dress and now even to learn about the law so they know when and how to question a police officer?!

It’s too late to ask how we got here. Women have known this is a serious issue and been trying to change the culture for decades. To hear our prime minister say: “We do need to look systemically… at the whole handling of rape, domestic violence, sexual violence and female complaints about harassment all together. It is a phenomenon” is quite frankly insulting.

We know what needs to be done.

The physical, mental, psychological, social and economic effects of sexual violence and abuse are immense. Every single one of us – women, girls, and all the good men – need to work together to end this culture of misogyny that is ruining women’s lives and damaging society.

To make that happen we need our leaders to wake up and start funding serious prevention and education work. ‘Getting more rapists behind bars‘ is not the only answer.”

Caroline Voaden, CEO