Preventing abuse in the UK: a matter of education

A new campaign by the UK Government’s Home Office, This Is Abuse, is a critical step to preventing violence against women and girls, but the Department for Education’s failure to support it is baffling, says Holly Dustin

Holly Dustin
6 December 2013

Recent research from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in England  has highlighted disturbing levels of abuse experienced by girls and young women, often at the hands of friends and boyfriends. It is a problem that the Home Office is tackling with its re-launched This Is Abuse campaign which, refreshingly, turns the traditional prevention campaign on its head by challenging abusive attitudes and behaviours in boys and young men, rather than focusing on the behaviour of the victim.

Attitudes and behaviours are formed early, so the Home Office’s focus on young men is well targeted. There is a great deal of research to show that this group are most likely to hold violence-condoning attitudes and are influenced by harmful images in the media. For example, research this year also by the Children’s Commissioner found that boys are more likely than girls to seek out pornography, and that it is linked to negative attitudes towards women, viewing women as sex objects and having earlier and riskier sexual activity.

There is growing evidence about the way in which our sexualised media, including pornography and music videos, provides a ‘conducive context’ in which violence against women and girls flourishes. So it is a smart move by the Home Office to run the new This Is Abuse campaign ads on MTV and to use pop stars and DJs in a series of films ‘calling out’ abusive behaviour. The new campaign also links in to a storyline on youth soap, Hollyoaks, about domestic violence and Hollyoaks stars have been doing the rounds on breakfast TV sofas with government Ministers and experts to promote the campaign.

NSPCC research in 2009 found that almost one in three teenage girls had experienced sexual violence from a partner, and that teenagers are the age-group most at risk from domestic violence. Research also by the NSPCC on ‘sexting’ (sharing sexual messages or images via mobile phones or online) in 2012 found that it is linked to coercive behaviour, harassment and even violence and disproportionately affects girls. The problem was tragically highlighted by the case of 13 year-old Chevonea Kendall-Bryan who fell to her death from a block of flats in 2011 whilst begging a boy to delete an image of her being raped by another boy that had been passed around her school. Our own poll in 2010 found that one that in three 16-18 year old girls in the UK have been ‘groped’ at school or experienced other unwanted sexual touching.

The Home Office leads a cross-government strategy on violence against women and girls, an approach for which our members had long-campaigned. This Is Abuse delivers on one of the priority objectives of the strategy:

To prevent violence against women and girls from happening in the first place, by challenging the attitudes and behaviours which foster it and intervening early to prevent it.”

Despite this commitment, prevention remains the weakest part of the government’s strategy. There is an absence of any real vision of how to achieve a violence-free society and key departments, notably the Department  for Education in Westminster, are failing to play their part in the task of prevention. The Department has said repeatedly that it will not be disseminating This Is Abuse to schools in England – meaning that the opportunity to use campaign materials may be missed, as well as any warning to school staff to prepare for disclosures from children who have seen the ads. This is baffling from the key department with responsibility for child protection and is one of the reasons why the Westminster government was scored just 24/100 earlier this year for its action on prevention.

Westminster policy and practice is still predicated on the assumption that violence is somehow inevitable and this is reflected at local levels. In February this year, the report of a joint inspection on young sex offenders found that, in many cases, there had been an earlier display of sexually harmful behaviour which had been over looked, minimised or dismissed by parents, teachers and social workers. The result was that an opportunity to intervene at an early stage was lost. More recently an Ofsted Inspection found that poor teaching of Public Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education is leaving children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Our own surveys with local Secondary Schools as part of our Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign found a general failure to address violence against women and girls adequately, with few specific policies and little ongoing training for staff.

The researchers who carried out the NSPCC’s qualitative research into sexting said this:

"As researchers going into the schools to meet with young people, we were distressed by the levels of sexist abuse and physical harassment–even violence–to which the girls were subject on a regular basis. More than this, we were struck by the way in which it is entirely taken for granted by both girls and boys–even when the same behaviours would be grounds for dismissal in other settings and among adults (e.g. in the workplace) or for arrest and prosecution if they happened in public space."

That we afford girls less protection from harassment and abuse than adult women is horrifying and deeply shameful. This is not to say that there aren't good initiatives in schools and local areas. There are. But there is no national plan or coordination of activity to prevent abuse.

The From Boys to Men project found that social marketing campaigns such as This Is Abuse need to be integrated with work with young people to be properly effective. So whilst the Home Office is to be applauded for continuing to run the campaign, it can only ever be one step in a comprehensive programme of work to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls.

It is clear what action governments at all levels need to take. A large-scale UN study on men who perpetrate sexual and domestic violence found that tackling social norms and damaging notions of masculinity, and promoting gender equality is key to ending violence. The ground-breaking Model of Perpetration prepared for the EU sets out pathways to violence, and consequently what policy interventions are required to disrupt those pathways. Our own report, A Different World Is Possible, uses the Model to set out a blueprint strategy on prevention. Research on sexual consent from the Children’s Commissioner stressed the importance of work with young people on how to gain enthusiastic consent, in line with the Sexual Offences Act, not just how to give it.

Key elements of a prevention strategy include: a legal obligation on schools and other educational institutions to do preventative work with young people and ongoing training for teachers on how to identify the signs of abuse and respond appropriately; a guarantee that both survivors of abuse and perpetrators have access to specialist support in the community; long term investment in public campaigns like This Is Abuse which are targeted at specific groups (similar to the long-running road safety campaign THINK!); further work to regulate and restrict harmful messages in the media that condone violence, building on recent action to address children’s safety online; and community and bystander programmes. Critically, we need to see leadership from politicians at national and local levels in the same way that successive Directors of Public Prosecution have said this is a priority issue for them and have revolutionised their policy on child sexual abuse in the wake of the Savile case.

We cannot continue to wring our hands at the litany of abuse and, in extreme cases deaths, of women and girls in our homes, communities, schools and workplaces. The government must build on This Is Abuse by setting out the step by step pathway to achieving a world free from violence against women and girls.  

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence



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