Last week the government unveiled their Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy. The Strategy is a policy paper seeking to provide a ‘‘once in a generation’ opportunity to reduce the prevalence of VAWG and improve the support response for victims and survivors.’ Following the Rape Review, VAWG organisations had a lot of constructive feedback for the government, and most were not entirely satisfied with the response – how does this Strategy fare?
Content warning: this article mentions sexual violence and harassment.
Some of the positive moves towards tackling this gargantuan issue that the paper notes from the past ten years, are the introduction of offences such as ‘coercive behaviour, stalking, ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’’. The paper also makes mention of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 that was passed in response to the undeniable problem of domestic abuse in the UK, revealed in brutal abundancy by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why sustainable and substantiated policy around VAWG is necessary to safeguard mental health
As we have covered in past articles, the prevalence of rape, violence and sexual assault has a detrimental impact on those who identify as women and girls. With a higher risk of PTSD - and an increased risk of self-harming behaviours and suicide, the violence that women and girls experience in all walks of their lives can make them particularly vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems.
On the 18th of June, the government addressed the shocking mishandling from Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) and Police of rape cases under the Conservative party’s governance. In a PMQS session, Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer stated that currently, 98.4% of rape cases do not end up in a conviction.
The Response from VAWG organisations, particularly the Centre for Women’s Justice was critical, “This is a missed opportunity to create the fundamental changes required to make the system fit for purpose”, particularly criticising the CPS on their tendency to be “risk averse”, resulting in many compelling cases not even getting to court.
On this topic, End Violence Against Women (EVAW) also made a statement, Andrea Simon, Director of EVAW, said, “The collapse in rape prosecution rates clearly point to failings in a justice system that does not put survivors first, yet the Review contains little that would hold criminal justice agencies to account.”
Simon ended, “We would have hoped to have seen some measures examining the governance of the CPS and mechanisms that would demand greater leadership and prioritisation of rape justice among senior leaders of the police, CPS and Government. We also needed more in-depth interrogation into what is going wrong in courts, including a ban on the use of sexual history evidence and an honest look at the role of juries, and the re-traumatising impact of the courtroom.”
Reporting to the police on a sexual assault, harassment or rape is an extremely traumatising process for the victim or survivor. The Criminal Justice System’s (CJS) failure to honour this trauma with convictions can be even further damaging to the person’s mental health who has already gone through a horrific experience.
What does the Strategy say?
A big focus of this policy paper is on preventative work. This means that before a crime is committed and how that itself is handled by the CJS, through educational work, national campaigns, building safe spaces (with more police presence, CCTV etc.), the government believes VAWG could be reduced before it ever takes place.
The policy paper makes mention of:
- ‘A national communications campaign focused on raising awareness of violence against women and girls and creating behaviour change
- The Home Office will invest £3 million to better understand what works to prevent violence against women and girls
- To help ensure women feel safe in public places, the Home Office is launching a £5 million Safety of Women at Night Fund focused on the prevention of violence against women and girls in public spaces at night
- The Home Office will also pilot a tool, StreetSafe, which will enable the public to anonymously report areas where they feel unsafe and identify what about the location made them feel this way
- The Department for Education will better support teachers to deliver the recently introduced Relationships, Sex and Health education curriculum’
A focus on education from an early age is positive to hear, as we discussed in our piece on in-school sexual harassment, having to withstand this behaviour from peers has a hugely damaging effect on young girls’ sense of self and wellbeing.
- See also: 'When “of course, I say sorry” isn’t enough: the government’s sexual violence review'
- See also: 'The mental health and sense of self of young girls is being eroded by sexual harassment'
- See also: 'Women and girl’s mental health is in crisis one year into the pandemic: Agenda reports'
The Strategy policy paper also succeeds in acknowledging the disproportionate levels of violence and sexual violence that LGBTQ+ peoples experience, as well as the heightened risk of victimisation of child sexual exploitation and intimate partner sexual violence experienced by Black and Asian Ethnic Minority women and girls. In addition, the paper also recognises the increased risk of domestic abuse that migrant women are exposed to.
In response to this, the government has promised in this paper:
- ‘32m for sexual violence support services over three years
- 2m for smaller specialist organisation helping people from different ethnic backgrounds, LGBT or disabled victims
- an additional 1.5m funding for ‘by and for’ service provision’
From the perspective of the NHS, the paper addresses the need for specialist trauma informed mental health support for sexual abuse victims and survivors, especially those with complex needs such as PTSD or Complex PTSD.
To ensure this is a viable and sustainable addition, the government will be introducing ‘pathfinder’ projects that seek to collaborate and work cooperatively between NHS mental health care and voluntary sector organisations, so that tailored, trauma informed care and support is made available to adults with trauma-related mental health needs. This ‘pathfinder’ project will begin piloting over the next 12 months to ‘test and evaluate approaches to better meet survivor needs’.
What is the response from VAWG organisations?
Andrea Simon from EVAW again made comment about this further government strategy in a statement on their website. On the positive side, Simon said, “The seriousness and scale of violence against women warrants radical change and a whole systems approach which has prevention at its heart. We welcome the recognition of this in the government’s new strategy.”
However, commenting on the pitfalls of the strategy, Simon said, “Measures which reach across policing, health, education, and transport are important to ensure tackling VAWG becomes everyone’s business. However, to make this a strategy that delivers change there must be accountability and the right level of funding that follows all aspects of the work: There is a distinct lack of resourcing here that cannot be ignored.”
Simon also pointed out that the aspects of the strategy, such as public attitude campaigns, 24/7 helplines for survivors of sexual violence, and the introduction of school education all require appropriate, collaborative work with the correct organisations who have a wealth of experience in working with survivors safely.
This initial first publication hints at the building blocks that could create positive change. As EVAW pointed out, the factor that will truly make the difference on whether these building blocks can be sustainable and actionable is cooperation with the groups that have the most experience working with survivors of sexual violence.
Those who have come through an assault, abuse or sustained harassment are vulnerable to the long-lasting implications of trauma, their mental health should be dealt with delicately and respectfully, the only way to fully achieve this is to involve those who have practical experience.
Organisations such as Rape Crisis England and Wales, EVAW, Imkaan and Centre for Women’s Justice make a point of employing those with lived experience and so continued and involved work with them is essential in ensuring that the mental health of survivors is informing the policy present in this new government strategy.
If the issues discussed in this article impact you or someone you know, you can find help with Rape Crisis England and Wales, here. To get help for domestic abuse, visit Refuge's 'Get help' page or call them on 0808 2000 247.