Gender violence: Groundhog Day of ‘we’ve been here before’ again and again

Marsha Scott says strategic, resourced action tackling causes and symptoms is the only way forward

Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) has welcomed the recent attention to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in media, criminal justice, and political spheres, but that welcome has been accompanied by a slightly jaundiced eye. We have been here before, as have our sister organisations across the world. The pattern is familiar- a high profile case, horribly tragic, a justifiable expression of moral outrage and ‘how can this keep happening?’ and little or no effective system reform. So, how can this keep happening? What causes VAWG, and why have the decades of investment and attention delivered no discernible decreases across any of the indicators we track?

Behind closed doors at SWA, we are inclined to remark with some version of ‘It’s the patriarchy, stupid’. Scotland’s ‘causal story’ is that gender inequality is the cause and consequence of VAWG—that principle has been embedded in UN policy and Scottish VAWG strategies since devolution. Only recently, alongside development of a delivery plan for Equally Safe, have we seen any sign that the Scottish Government has been willing to take women’s inequality out of the ‘too-hard’ box, aligning primary prevention with decreasing the gender pay gap and other manifestations of structural inequalities in our economic frameworks and increasing women’s access to public power and decision making. As Emma Ritch and I wrote in The Routledge International Handbook of Domestic Violence and Abuse (2021):

Women and men and girls and boys live very different lives. Any analysis, research, policy, or legislation can be said to be ‘gender competent’ when it reflects that principle. Familiarity with the dynamics of gender in our gendered world enables the development of policy and laws that disrupt the unequal distribution of power, prosperity, and safety in our families, communities, and institutions and promote social justice. Gender competence is thus required for activists, governments, and state institutions to develop and deliver policy and practice that sees oppression, understands how it works, and then dismantles it.

So, the first and most important step to ending VAWG in Scotland is to demand anyone with power and authority in service to the Scottish people understand how very critical being gender-competent is to doing their job. No excuses, no delays.

The following are some of the policy opportunities that could secure some manifest change and give us some hope that we will see actual decreases in rape and sexual assault, domestic abuse, forced marriage, and the other forms of VAWG that are nurtured by attitudes to gender roles and systemic sexism:

• Revise and enforce Scotland’s Public Sector Equality Duty. Hold officials, politicians, and leadership at local and national levels for accountable, with incentives and sanctions that work.
• Restructure funding for frontline services, based on need rather than historical accident, guaranteed by legislation and protected from local political whim. Services across the VAWG spectrum are under-resourced and increasingly precarious. Indeed, for domestic abuse services, while reports of domestic abuse incidents by Police Scotland have risen for the fourth year in a row, 81% of local grass-roots Women’s Aid services suffered cuts to funding from local authorities (the trend started in 2009, with austerity policies, and has never abated).
• Implement the recommendations of Lady Dorrian’s review of the management of sexual offence cases and the Scottish Government’s working group on Improving Housing Outcomes for Women and Girls Experiencing Domestic Abuse by providing access to free legal services for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.
• Prioritise incorporation of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and include where possible the principles of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, signed but never ratified by the UK Parliament.
• COVID recovery—the evidence is compelling that women were hugely and disproportionately affected by state and local government responses to the pandemic, and poor women, BAME women, disabled women, immigrant women will have been the most severely harmed. Each and every element of recovery must respond to that disproportionate harm by disproportionately benefitting women, by restructuring our economy and public services to make gender visible, by becoming part of the solution, rather than the problem.

We have two other asks. First, we would like to see our leaders make some hard decisions about the more than 40,000 cases in the backlog for Summary courts, many of which are domestic abuse cases. The current plan is just not good enough. Waiting two or three years for her case to come to court is the surest way to drive a victim-survivor out of the justice system, destroying any faith they have in Scotland’s courts, and women are already voting with their feet. Second, we think it is never too late for journalists and media outlets generally to improve reporting of VAWG. At SWA, we observe regression in reporting about domestic abuse in media coverage of COVID and domestic abuse. We, and researchers, have been saying for years to journalists that football does not cause domestic abuse. Nor do COVID, alcohol, stress, or poverty. Perpetrators, mostly men, choose to control and abuse, and the tired mantras about football, Old Firm games, and alcohol are just a set of cultural excuses. We welcome good media reporting about these issues and long for a time when as a nation we stop making excuses and blaming victims but instead hold abusers to account and support survivors of all forms of violence against women and girls.

Dr Marsha Scott is CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid