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01/11/17 14:44

Violence Against Women Network speech

Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities Angela Constance

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Good afternoon everyone and thanks to Kerry for the introduction. Given today’s excellent programme, I am sure you will have had a very productive and informative morning.

This event comes at what I very much hope is a societal tipping point around how we’re talking about violence against women. As such I think it is appropriate that I begin by discussing the recent media attention surrounding sexual harassment and the ‘me too’ tag on social media prompting thousands of women to disclose that they too have been victims of sexual harassment or assault. The title of today’s conference - ‘tackling violence against women and girls is everyone’s business’ - has, in my opinion, never been more acutely felt.

Many women will have reflected over the past few weeks on their own experiences of harassment, intimidation or assault and whilst it is not surprising that so many women have raised their hands and said ‘me too’, seeing the magnitude laid so bare and so publically has been overwhelming.

It is important to acknowledge the bravery of these women for speaking out. It is also important to recognise the immense courage of women who have experienced sexual harassment - or any other form of gender based violence - and who, for many understandable reasons, have not shared their experiences in this way. While reporting and speaking out is so important we need to acknowledge that many women are not ready to disclose their trauma, and that’s okay.

Those of you in this room have been working to tackle violence against women and girls day in day out – it’s time for everyone to realise we are all responsible for eradicating violence against and women and the underlying attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate it.

And it is vital that men acknowledge their responsibility in this and change their behaviours and attitudes. I was proud that yesterday in Parliament, the Deputy First Minister responded to a question about sexual harassment.

This may lie in my portfolio but John Swinney as the most senior man in the Scottish Government – wanted to send a very clear message on behalf of our government that it is the conduct and behaviour of men that need to change if we are to end the sexual harassment and abuse of women, whether in their workplace, their social life or their home. We need more men to do this. We need them to join the very many women who are already speaking out, taking action, and acknowledge this isn’t for women to fix. It’s for society to fix.

In light of this, the Scottish Government is now looking carefully at its own procedures, and the Parliament is also taking action. However, it is important to acknowledge that this problem is not specific to any one institution. That’s why every employer should carefully reflect on their working environment and how conducive that is to reporting harassment and abuse. They also need to be reflecting on whether they have robust procedures and processes in place to deal with complaints, and that their employees are confident in these.

Because if those experiencing harassment and abuse do not have confidence, a pervasive silence will continue to exist – and those who choose to behave in this way will continue to believe they can act with impunity.

It is the responsibility of all organisations, employers, and governments to take action. This is a watershed moment, let’s not waste it. Let’s seize it and make it a moment of real change. Our job is to translate this hope into action that prevents violence against women and girls from happening, and ultimately eradicates it from society.

So, today is hugely important. It’s vital that we come together to discuss violence against women in all its forms and manifestations. As the writer Zadie Smith has said: “progress is never permanent, it must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive”.

The events over the past few weeks have acted as a stark reminder that we simply cannot be complacent.

It is vital for government and society, to take active steps to hold perpetrators to account and keep women and children safe from violence and abuse.  

Key to this is our work to implement Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and Girls.

We will be publishing a delivery plan later this month to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism. It will set out a coordinated and action focused approach to ensure that everyone is playing their part to prevent and eradicate gender based violence. It will signal our determination to tackle all forms of gender based violence.

Equally Safe is a powerful articulation of our approach – but I am absolutely determined that this vision is translated into real change for people on the ground and that we turn rhetoric into reality. This must be a collective endeavour, shared by all – so your active contribution and participation is vital to realising our shared ambitions. We will be guided by international best practice in this area – that is why we are working actively to ensure compliance with the Istanbul Convention, and why we will continue to press the UK Government to take steps towards ratifying this instrument, which has been described as the violence against women “gold standard” policy.

The Equally Safe strategy and delivery plan has a deliberate and decisive focus on building a society where gendered violence doesn’t happen in the first place and on addressing the root cause of gendered violence – gender inequality.

We have made real progress in Scotland over the past few years and decades. But, the fact that a gender pay gap exists, that women are still experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination and that women continue to perform the bulk of caring in Scottish society, highlights the reality that in Scotland, women still experience inequality at a societal and institutional level.

However, it is important to recognise that we are not starting from scratch.

We are already working to right the wrongs that gender inequality bring - and, in many areas, what we are doing in Scotland is exemplar internationally.

We are taking action to ensure that women are properly represented in political and public life and more widely in senior and decision making positions. We have a female First Minister with a gender balanced Cabinet. Our Gender Representation legislation is being looked at with interest by others in Europe. And our Advisory Council on Women and Girls will help us to drive forward a real step change in advancing women’s equality in Scotland.

And education is critical. Schools have a key formative impact on young people and potential for broad impact on societal gender equality. That’s why we are funding Zero Tolerance and Rape Crisis Scotland to pilot a whole schools approach to tackling gender based violence in schools. We are also supporting Rape Crisis Scotland to deliver their excellent sexual violence prevention programme across a number of local authorities in Scotland – this work is vital in helping to deepen understanding of young people around issues of consent and healthy relationships. Last week I had the privilege of meeting young people from our “Everyday Heroes” participation project – their commitment and intelligence was an inspiration, and I am committed to ensuring that their work is reflected in our plans for delivery.

We also need to ensure that women and children get the help and support they need. That’s why we’ve provided 3 year funding to equality and violence against women organisations as announced earlier in the year. This will give front line services in particular the ability to plan for the future.

We have more to do to ensure that local specialist services are able to meet the needs of victims and survivors. That’s why we intend to review the current model of support in this area. We also need to ensure that public services are able to respond appropriately - while there is undoubtedly good practice in areas of the country for too many women and children there is still evidence of a postcode lottery in operation. So we’ll work with CoSLA and the Improvement Service to build capability and capacity across public services to better ensure a consistent and sensitive response that’s delivered by agencies working together. 

National initiatives are important – but we know that real change happens on the ground, in the day to day. The role of the local Violence against Women Partnerships are so important in driving that change forward. You work tirelessly day in day out to ensure that things change on the ground in your local areas. We have worked closely with you in the development of Equally Safe, and we will continue to do so. I know that many of you are aligning your own strategies and delivery plans with Equally Safe, and I very much hope this will continue. It is only through changing things on the ground that we will make the real difference.

As many of you will know, we are also taking a range of steps to ensure a strong Justice response towards supporting victims and tackling perpetrators.

Earlier this year, we introduced the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill in Parliament to strengthen the law in this area. This new offence is ground-breaking and will cover all the types of behaviour that can constitute domestic abuse - crucially, this includes psychological harm as well as physical harm.

The 20 million pounds announced by the First Minister in 2015 (for 2015-2018) to strengthen the Justice response to tackling violence against women is being used to strengthen advocacy support across the country for victims of sexual violence, to reducing criminal court waiting times, and to embedding the principles of Equally Safe in higher education settings and developing the capacity of perpetrator programmes.

We have passed the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, which modernises the law on domestic and sexual abuse. Amongst other provisions, this act has created a specific offence of sharing private intimate images without consent (commonly known as 'revenge porn'). You will recall the campaigns we worked with Rape Crisis Scotland and others on earlier this year, to raise awareness of the consequence of sharing images without consent and the very powerful “I Just Froze” campaign which highlighted the challenges of coming to terms with rape and sexual assault.

It is important to emphasise that it needs more than the Justice system to tackle violence against women and girls – but a strong system that tackles perpetrators and supports victims is a key part of these efforts. I know that my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Justice is hugely committed to this agenda, and he will continue to drive change forward from the Justice portfolio.