Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy: A Promising Start But Sexual Exploitation of Adult Women Still Not Recognised - My CMS

Laura Seebohm, Executive Director of External Affairs at Changing Lives, shares her reflections on the Government’s Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy.

Yesterday the Government published the long-awaited Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. It didn’t receive much attention in the media, but I hope it will be largely welcomed in that the three explicit ambitions – to increase support for victims and survivors, increase numbers of perpetrators brought to justice and reduce prevalence – give the strong message that we need.

I was nervous reading it, anticipating that it would not go far enough and that the focus (as suggested by the headlines that morning) might be directed towards sticking plasters such as improved street lighting more than the real work that needs to be done.  I actually felt quite reassured.  Here is a document with the right priorities and on which we can hold our government to account. But I also know that the strategy is unlikely to tackle the structural, economic and social changes needed to really embed a culture that does not tolerate violence against women and girls. Preventative work with children and young people is a brilliant start, but what about all those past school age who have already internalised the attitudes that mean women’s lives are seen as less important?

I write this as Changing Lives and six specialist women’s organisations (A Way Out, GROW, WomenCentre Kirklees and Calderdale, Basis Leeds and Together Women) reach the end of a two-year project funded by the DCMS Tampon Tax Fund supporting women who are groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire. Our work has been led by practitioners who have listened to and learned from the hundreds of women we have supported. We have worked with an influence group, chaired by Jess Phillips MP and including a number of committed MPs, Peers, academics and lawyers, to amplify the voices of these women and inform government policy. What we have learned is heartbreaking, as seen on Channel 4 News earlier this week.

Women are regularly subjected to horrific sexual, physical and psychological violence. They are terrified and unable to leave because of fear and the control that their exploiters exert over their lives.

Sexual exploitation for adult women largely goes unrecognised and ignored. Despite several high profile cases of child sexual exploitation over the years, there is little or no access to justice or support for women once they are 18. Since the start of 2019, Changing Lives have not seen any perpetrators convicted for any crimes of sexual violence, despite huge increases in women reporting.

The central principle of our democracy is that everyone has equal protection by the law. What those of us who have worked with women for many years know is that this is impossible within a society so marked by deeply entrenched inequalities, and until these inequalities are addressed the Government’s strategy will not be enough.

  • The reality is, whilst grooming often starts in childhood, it doesn’t stop at 18. However, once women reach adulthood, consent is assumed and they are often labelled as sex workers and offenders.
  • Women are targeted because of vulnerabilities such as poverty, disability, homelessness and addiction. Perpetrators know that women with the least power in our society are least likely to report and least likely be believed if they do. This is the stark reality – women’s status precludes them from being seen as ‘credible witnesses’ and their cases rarely get to court.
  • This has been even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Changing Lives saw a 179% increase in women reporting sexual violence during the first lockdown compared to the same period in 2019 in the North East.
  • Grooming is not understood by our public sector partners. When women return to their exploiters it is assumed that their repeated sexual abuse is consensual but, along with being terrified, they also have no money and nowhere to go. Fleeing sexual exploitation does not receive priority housing status and their exploitation is often not recognised by healthcare practitioners.

Even before the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy was released we were calling for a strategy specifically tackling sexual exploitation of adult women, and now we have seen the contents of the Government’s strategy our ask has not changed. The Government’s strategy does not acknowledge the full reality of adult sexual exploitation – indeed it is barely mentioned at all. Furthermore, whilst prevention, support for survivors and disrupting perpetrators is equally important when dealing with adult sexual exploitation, the systemic lack of understanding of exploitation and grooming goes beyond this and needs to be addressed across housing, healthcare and justice.

Over the coming months the STAGE partnership will be launching the #SeenAndHeard campaign to raise awareness of adult sexual exploitation and to call on the Government to take action. A recent national poll conducted by Deltapoll* found that the majority of adults across the UK would agree more must be done. The majority polled (72%) of people believe that the legal system, police and social services should help all victims, regardless of age.

It is not just the fact that the experiences of women who so bravely talk about what has happened to them go unheard.  It means that professionals do not recognise it, it means support for women is not funded, most tragically it means that women are left in the most horrific circumstances and get treated as unworthy of justice.  This must not go on.  Please keep an eye out for #SeenAndHeard and ensure that adult women groomed for sexual exploitation have their voices raised and are supported, protected and heard.

*  Deltapoll interviewed 1,500 adults in Britain online between 4th – 7th June 2021. The data have been weighted to be representative of the British adult population as a whole. Deltapoll is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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