The Following Speech was delivered by Caroline Lucas M.P. for Brighton Pavilion, at a conference on violence against women which was organised by Brighton & Hove domestic violence charity RISE, and held in Brighton on 17th December 2011.

Caroline Lucas is one of the Patrons for For Our Daughters.


I am honoured to be speaking at this conference today and I’m proud that Brighton and Hove is taking such a lead in tackling violence against women and girls.

Honoured and proud, but also deeply saddened that the facts and figures on gendered violence remain so alarming – and it seems very clear that, as a society, we are still failing to approach this problem with anything like the urgency or seriousness that it deserves.

The figures are appalling, but they bear repeating. Currently, two women a week are killed in the UK by a partner/ex-partner; 60,000 women are raped every year; sexual harassment in schools, communities and workplaces is routine; and an estimated 6,500 girls are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) annually. Here in Brighton and Hove, almost 11,000 women experienced physical and emotional violence last year, 2,736 women experienced sexual assault and 6,682 women were the focus of stalking

These aren’t just figures – they’re individual women, and each and every one of these women is having her basic human rights violated. As we fight back, it is crucial to recognise this reality.

Because unless we view violence against women and girls as both a human rights abuse and, at least in part, a symptom of inequality, I fear we will never make significant progress towards eradicating it.

Our city is leading the way when it comes to tackling domestic violence. The award winning work carried out by Rise and so many others is an inspiration.  Our intelligent commissioning is recognised as an example of good practice, and I have been lobbying the council to push even further ahead by developing a violence against women and girls strategy, as well as for the city to gain White Ribbon status.

Crucially the Green administration does see domestic violence as an integral part of its work on tackling inequality. I am hopeful that in the not too distant future this will help protect women from harm in our city and enable Brighton and Hove to demonstrate real best practice in this area.

Many decades worth of domestic violence strategies, nationally and internationally, have achieved a great deal, not least in getting domestic violence recognised by the law and generating increasing awareness.

Yet the disturbing statistics I have just quoted leave me feeling angry – angry that more hasn’t been done to end violence against women and girls. And the case I want to make this morning is that one of the key reasons we haven’t achieved more as a society is because stark gender inequality remains embedded in our everyday lives.

Women in the media

Achieving gender equality faces so many different obstacles. From the lack of wage parity despite over 40 years of the Equal Pay Act, to women being hit disproportionately hard by the Coalition Government’s spending cuts; from dismal levels of representation in Parliament or in corporate board rooms, to the difficulties of accessing affordable child care – still.

What I want to focus on today, though, are the powerful and pervading cultural norms that undermine the concept of equality and, in turn, create the conditions in which violence against women and girls thrives. And my starting point is how women are portrayed in our society – especially by the media.

As you will know, it has been long established that the relentless portrayal of women as sex objects plays a role in maintaining inequality between women and men. This has been recognised at the international level by the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which calls on States to take decisive action to tackle objectification – which it links to stereotypes and prejudices based on gender

CEDAW has also repeatedly identified the links between the portrayal of women as sex objects by the media and sex industry with attitudes that underpin violence and discrimination against women.

I am sure you know exactly the kinds of images I mean so I won’t remind you of them now.  But let me just tell you about one particular example of the media’s treatment of women that reveals just how insidious its stereotyping can be.

One recent newspaper headline proclaimed:

Shout at your spouse and risk losing your home: It’s just the same as domestic violence, warns woman judge

The recent headline refers to the case of Yemshaw vs the London Borough of Hounslow. The local authority refused to recognise Ms Yemshaw as homeless as the result of domestic violence because, whilst she had been subjected to emotional, psychological and financial abuse from her husband, she had not experienced physical abuse.

It was not until the case reached the Supreme Court that Ms Yemshaw was recognised to have experienced domestic violence and thus deemed eligible for housing assistance. Not only did the newspaper in question misrepresent the court’s ruling, the implication is that a male judge would not have reached such a decision.

If I tell you that this headline comes from the Daily Mail, no doubt we can all shake our heads ruefully at their conformity to type. But the fact remains that this kind of reporting both reflects widely held attitudes and beliefs, as well as contributing to them.

In fact many of the online comments responding to the weekend’s front page Argus coverage of a story about levels of domestic violence in our city very much echo the Daily Mail’s stance – basically women should stop whingeing and stop being man haters.

How, and even whether, we challenge these attitudes is crucial if we are serious about ending domestic violence. And that essentially means tackling attitudes about equality too.


So how do we go about doing that?

In 2008 the UN CEDAW Committee specifically flagged the UK’s lack of action on gender stereotyping, and the portrayal of women in the media and popular culture, and called for strong action to be taken by the Government.

Three years on and I, for one, can’t see much evidence of the media being reined in.

This is worrying on a number of levels, not least because the sexualisation of women in the media and the mainstreaming of the sex industry shapes how sexual identities are formed.

Most young people get no education designed to help them take control of their sexualisation, rather than being dictated to by the media or advertising.

There is also no commitment to ensure that every child receives comprehensive sex education that includes all forms of violence against women – teenage relationship abuse, forced marriage, FGM, sexual exploitation – and that includes gender equality and challenging gender stereotypes. This means that our young people do not develop an understanding of what constitutes gender violence and how to combat it. Nor do they get a chance to explore the many complex issues around our sexual relationships.

Moreover, Education Ministers have signalled that they want these issues to remain outside of the statutory curriculum. Yet good education is key, not just in and of itself, but also because of the power it has to change social norms.

The current flaws in our education provision are a problem because the information vacuum is filled by other sources of information. And because that information overwhelmingly sets up inequalities between men and women, with women as little more than providers of sex and men as consumers.

‘Sex object culture’ harms boys too, who are pressurised to act out a version of ‘being a man’ in which power over women is normal. The effect is demonstrated by the fact that only 8% of rapes are stranger rapes. The vast majority of rape is carried out by women’s current or former partners. This means that it is ‘ordinary’ boys and men who are committing sexually violent crimes.

So yes, domestic violence is very much an equality issue – for men and for women. And not tackling gender inequality means we are failing to protect everyone’s human rights.

For as long as women are objectified in the media, we will have to contend with the fact that one in three people believe a woman is responsible for violence committed against her if she is wearing ‘revealing clothing’.

And for as long as young men and women are not helped to counter the images and stereotypes being sold by everyone from supermarkets to the sex industry, they may well struggle to feel equal.

Women feeling less equal:

I would argue that media stereotyping and the failure of education to challenge those messages can make women feel less equal – and that this in turn shapes both genders attitudes towards domestic violence.

I held an adjournment debate recently in parliament on the subject of preventing violence against women and girls, and in researching the subject, was horrified to learn that  almost half (43%) of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner.

1 in 2 boys and 1 in 3 girls believe that there are some circumstances when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex. Underpinning these beliefs is an implied lack of equality and rights that I think plays a huge role in allowing such attitudes to take hold.

After all, when many schools fail to recognise that unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment and sexual name calling are specific forms of abuse which girls suffer routinely, is it any wonder that young people do not acknowledge the right to be free from sexual or other violence?

And when we inhabit a society that seems to tolerate women being portrayed as sex objects, despite knowing that there is a link to gendered violence, it takes a particular inner strength to do anything other than conclude that, for some, women’s lives have little value.

The Equality Trust points out that 24% of women in the Britain are worried about rape, and that all kinds of violence is more common in more unequal societies. It stands to reason then that preventing violence against women and girls is closely linked to tackling inequality and other social injustices.

Gender inequality and other equality issues

Yet inequality looks set to get worse not better under the current Government, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies calling the austerity budget measures “regressive”, and noting that they will have a disproportionately negative effect on women and the most disadvantaged in society.

As just one example, legal aid is being cut in the face of mountains of evidence about the damage such a move will cause, and how it will undermine equal access to justice. Legal aid is an important way of empowering women to try and protect themselves against violence; by giving them the information they need to stand up to their abuser, for example. It helps those usually denied a voice because they are too poor to fight back, or the wrong colour, or disabled.

Legal aid benefits women facing domestic violence because it is underpinned by the notion of redressing inequality. But we should go even further and insist that any target interventions to ensure prevention of violence against women and girls must also address intersections of gender with other social inequalities.

The one-dimensional media representation of women reinforces racism for example – by promoting stereotyped ideals of white, hypersexualised women, which fail to represent the true diversity of women in the UK.

And, of course, girls from ethnic minority backgrounds face additional risks when it comes to domestic violence, with the Home Affairs Committee recently reporting that schools are failing to respond to girls at risk of forced marriage, and may even be putting female students in greater danger

A race perspective is also helpful when it comes to considering how the law could better protect women. Alongside support for those that experience domestic violence and huge investment in prevention work, I think we should be learning from the arena of racial equality where legislation criminalises the incitement of racial hatred. Surely we have the right to expect the same when it comes to gendered hatred?

To expect regulation of the media in relation to sexism and for people to understand the reality and effects of normalising words and images which reinforce and normalise inequalities between women and men?

Not censorship, but parameters that confront the link between sexual objectification and human rights? After all, although the right to equality is enshrined in international law and in our national laws, we have seen how this can be undermined if the dominant culture persists in portraying women as less equal.

Better law enforcement:

Laws in themselves, then, are not always sufficient – equality must also be reflected in their enforcement and this is often dependent on the context in which they exist.

I would argue that both here in the UK and in the majority of the world’s states there has been a long running failure of criminal justice systems to protect women even when domestic violence constitutes a criminal offence.

Domestic violence is not always viewed as a serious crime and is – even wilfully – misunderstood, with an assumption that both parties must share some of the responsibility or blame. Which takes us back, of course, to the media, prevailing attitudes and education.

In fact, many women cite the criminal justice system as an obstacle for them in seeking to eliminate violence from their lives. This in turn means that a further basic human right is being violated – article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Namely that:

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

By the way, I am giving the authors the benefit of the doubt and assuming when they say ‘him’, they intended to grant the same rights to women as they did to men!

The UN, of course, shapes so much of our understanding about human rights and I’d like to draw to a close with this quote from former Secretary General Kofi Annan:

“Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace.”

I think that pretty much encapsulates what I wanted to get across to you today.

We have much to be proud of already and I look forward to working with you to achieve even more.


Additional Notes

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – proclaimed in 1948 by the General Assembly of the UN and the foundation of the UN’s human rights system – states that everyone should enjoy human rights without discrimination and affirms the equal rights of women and men. However, in practice gross violations of women’s human rights have often been ignored and structural discrimination against women not challenged.

To address this, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) provides a detailed mandate to secure equality between women and men and to prohibit discrimination against women. CEDAW expressly requires states to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organisation or enterprise” (Article 2 (e)).

In 1992, the CEDAW Committee adopted General Recommendation 19 on “violence against women”, which defined violence as a form of discrimination against women, and emphasises that governments are responsible for eliminating discrimination against women by any person, organisation or enterprise, and that governments are required to prevent violations of rights by any actor, punish these acts and provide compensation (paragraph 9).

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1994) defines violence against women as:

“Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. 

Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following:

(a)   Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;

(b)   Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;

(c)   Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.”

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