The government has promised to launch a major public awareness campaign challenging the misogynistic attitudes that underpin male violence against women and girls – but here’s why we’re not celebrating just yet.
Earlier this year, Stylist launched A Fearless Future: our initiative calling on the government to invest time and money in challenging the attitudes that drive and enable all forms of male violence against women. In an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, signed by more than 60 academics, campaigners, public figures and MPs from across the political spectrum, we demanded that the government put prevention at the core of its approach to eradicating male violence against women and girls.
We made this demand because ultimately, we don’t want to live in a world where thousands upon thousands of men are locked up for hurting women and girls. Instead, we want to live in a world where men don’t hurt women and girls in the first place; where poisonous patriarchal attitudes and beliefs about the acceptability of violence are challenged before they can evolve into abusive behaviour.
That might sound idealistic. But in our view, no government that claims to care about women should strive for anything less.
On 21 July, the government finally published its long-awaited strategy to tackle violence against women and girls – and preventive measures make up a significant portion of its plans. Not only that, the Home Office has committed to launching a multi-million pound communications campaign “with a focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes”, the central demand of Stylist’s A Fearless Future initiative.
“I like to call this the decade of change,” Victoria Atkins, the Conservative safeguarding minister, tells Stylist. “I think we’re at the beginning of the journey. We, as women, have reached that point where enough is enough.”
The Home Office’s new strategy was developed off the back of more than 180,000 responses to a government call for evidence on crimes that disproportionately affect women – 160,000 of which were submitted after the murder of Sarah Everard in March. Notably, when asked what they thought should be the government’s top priorities for tackling all forms of violence against women and girls, a majority of respondents said they wanted to see “more action to prevent violence against women and girls from happening”.
To that end, work is already underway on the government-funded public awareness campaign, which will draw on lessons learned from previous domestic abuse initiatives such as #AskForANI and #YouAreNotAlone. Unlike those examples, however, the forthcoming campaign – set to launch later this year – will not be solely aimed at survivors of violence.
Instead, it will target existing and potential perpetrators, while also striving to educate young people about healthy relationships and equipping victims to recognise abuse.
“We want to challenge the men who are behaving [violently towards women] and the misogynistic attitudes that lie behind those behaviours,” says Atkins, who describes the campaign as “a long-term course of action for government”.
“We are very committed to this – and we are also very aware that changing behaviours and attitudes sadly cannot be achieved in a matter of months.”
On the surface, it seems like this could be a major moment for everyone who wants to eradicate male violence against women in this country. But is the strategy as transformative as it needs to be?
“We welcome that this new strategy acknowledges the seriousness and the scale of violence against women and girls, and the fact that this warrants radical change,” Deniz Uğur, deputy director at the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), tells Stylist. “But what we don’t see is the ambition and resourcing needed to genuinely deliver that change.”
Uğur describes it as “really positive” that the government has earmarked funding for a public awareness campaign.
“We think it could make a real difference in women’s lives, because it moves us closer to addressing those root causes of harmful norms, sexism and misogyny – all those things that underpin and drive male violence against women.”
However, if a public awareness campaign is to be a success, the government will need to work closely with experts and specialist organisations – particularly from the women’s sector. Dr Stephen Burrell is a sociologist at Durham University whose research focuses on engaging men and boys in preventing male violence against women, including investigating how young men respond to violence prevention campaigns.
“The launching of a communications campaign is exciting – that could be a big, impactful thing,” Burrell tells Stylist. “But it’s really important that [the government] works with experts such as specialist women’s organisations in designing it. It’s the kind of thing that can be counterproductive if it’s not done well.”
The prevention section of the government’s strategy also includes measures to tackle sexual abuse and harassment in higher education; explore how streets can be planned with women’s safety in mind; and invest in researching “what works” to stop violence against women and girls. Overall, Burrell says he found the commitments “a little bit dispiriting”.
“It seems quite unambitious to me in lots of ways,” he says. “If we’re really serious about stopping [male violence against women] from happening in the first place, we’re going to need a lot more action than what’s being proposed here.”
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He is particularly concerned that the strategy doesn’t dig deep into issues such as gender inequality and gender norms.
“We know that attitudes around things like sexism and misogyny, and ideas and expectations about masculinity, are at the heart of men’s violence against women. We can’t really prevent it unless we’re addressing those things – but there’s very little discussion of that here.”
Those aren’t the only gaps in the new strategy. The Home Office has set aside just £1.5 million in extra funding for specialist services for victims of violence against women and girls – a tiny sum compared to the £25 million that’s being invested into the Safer Streets Fund to support measures such as improved street lighting and more CCTV.
The government has also failed to commit to ratifying the Istanbul Convention, a landmark human rights treaty against violence against women and girls.
“There are massive parts of our population that are missing from these proposals. Funding [for specialist services] is really short-term and it’s devastating to the sector and the women they support – thinking specifically about Black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and others,” says Uğur.
“And if the government wants this strategy to be transformative, it needs to hold itself up against the gold standard in tackling VAWG in Europe. The only way it can do that is to ratify the Istanbul Convention.”
Ultimately, none of these measures on their own will eradicate the epidemic of male violence against women and girls. We’re glad to see the government’s commitment to challenging misogynistic attitudes through a public awareness campaign – but there is still much, much more work to be done.
Stylist will be keeping the pressure on – we hope you will too.
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.