By Jean Calder

Party Leaders and the media have ignored a House of Commons debate on violence against women.

One in three women around the world are believed to experience sexual or physical assault by men – estimated to be one billion individuals. On 14th February 2013, the One Billion Rising movement, supported by the United Nations and many governments, organised events around the world to combat violence against women. British MPs joined members of the public in a rally outside Parliament and debated the issue in the House of Commons.

On the same day, television and radio news were filled with reports that the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius had shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. By the next day, the front pages of all the newspapers were focussed on Pistorius, exploring his fame, his infuence and the “tragedy” of his apparent fall from grace. Little attention was paid to the loss of Reeva Steenkamp’s life – or the ironic fact that she had been due to speak on violence against women at a local girls’ school and had used social media to speak out against the recent gang rape, murder and mutilation of a young South African girl.

The Sun ran a front page photograph of Reeva Steenkamp, scantily clad, and pulling down the zip of her bikini top alongside headlines which trivialised the violence. Domestic violence charities expressed outrage and Heather Harvey of Eaves wrote to Dominic Mohan asking for a front page apology (we have published this letter on this website).

It was predictable, though no less a scandal, that not one newspaper provided adequate coverage of One Billion Rising, still less the excellent parliamentary debate which took place the same day, remarkable both for its seriousness and the amount of cross-party agreement that it revealed. The Daily Telegraph published a photograph of on page 15, while the Guardian buried a short piece on page 35. Neither covered the debate.

In a way it was hardly surprising. Leaving aside the frenzy of interest in Oscar Pistorius, the media tend to take their lead from powerful politicians, not the committed backbenchers who dominated that day’s debate. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary turned up for the discussion about rape as a weapon of war abroad, but not to debate violence here in the UK. The Prime Minister wasn’t present at all, nor were his Deputy or the Chancellor. Shockingly, no one from the Department of Education was there to respond, even though a major theme of the discussion was the need for some form of sex and relationship education in the national curriculum. Even the Home Secretary failed to put in an appearance, despite her well known concern about violence against women.

However, perhaps the most worrying absence was that of Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition. Ed Miliband was not just missing, he had picked that day – alongside  Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor – to make a major economic policy announcement about Labour’s intention to levy a Mansion Tax, which he must have known was going to draw media attention away from the debate in Parliament. Not only did this announcement upstage the debate in parliament, receiving huge media coverage, it was made in a a traditionally ‘masculine’ factory setting in Bedford, where the two most powerful Labour leaders were photographed surrounded by men and young male apprentices.

Ed Miliband did not use his speech – as he could have done – to refer to the disproportionate affect upon women of the current economic downturn and associated political policies. Nor did he speak of the need to retrain women in non traditional skills and ensure that young girls have equal access to apprenticeships and employment. Even on the day of One Billion Rising, the female half of ‘one nation’ became invisible, as it so often does, when male politicians do what they consider to be ‘real politics’.

Ed Miliband’s office might say that the event in Bedford had been long planned. The fact is, it may have been, but the date of One Billion Rising had also been known for many months. Ed Miliband could have chosen that day to make an announcement of major new policy regarding violence against women in the UK – as indeed could David Cameron or George Osborne (for example ring-fencing funding for refuges and safe housing). None of them chose to do so. Ed Miliband’s announcement of the Mansion Tax did not need to go ahead on that day. Even if the event itself could not have been delayed, it did not require both the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor to attend. If either Ed Miliband or Ed Balls had made the effort to be in Parliament for the debate on violence against women it would have signalled genuine concern for women’s safety. Each could have referred to the other event in their speeches and media coverage of the parliamentary debate would have been greatly increased. The fact that they chose to do otherwise suggests indifference to women’s equality and the drive for women’s safety.

It is not enough that Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary and Equalities Minister did attend. Her support for these issues is well known. Male political leaders have a long history of leaving violence against women to be debated by women as a ‘women’s issue’. The many male back-benchers who attended and participated gave the lie to this, but the debate needed the presence of the main party leaders, not least to get media attention.

Before the debate, campaigners stood in Parliament Square and read out the names of 109 women murdered last year by partners or former partners. Inside the Chamber, MPs spoke in grief and horror about the levels of abuse experienced each year by tens of thousands of women and girls in this country, by homicide and ‘honour’ killing, rape and other sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, trafficking and female genital mutilation. Those MPs, male and female and of all political parties, respectfully and thoughtfully explored options for change.

That is real politics – and its about time our male political leaders realised this.

Jean Calder, 20th February 2013

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