Saturday, 10 March 2012

Combating violence against women should be applauded - not ridiculed

Credit should go to where credit is due, which is why the government should be commended for building on the positive work initiated by Labour’s commitment to the Council of Europe’s convention of violence against women.

The Prime Minister announced two days ago that the UK has agreed to become the 19th signatory to the convention – a move which would see the convention’s recommendations translated into British law. That is no bad thing. The fact that Cameron, with his reputation for pandering to the Europhobic elements of his party, has fully embraced the convention’s ideals more than demonstrates that this is a positive initiative to reinforce a zero tolerance attitude towards violence rather than an EU drive for political conformity.

Unfortunately some of our leading newspapers have failed to grasp what the Council of Europe’s aims are or fully appreciate what the government is trying to do. Predictably, the Daily Mail chose to consider what signing the convention might mean for “acts such as wolf-whistling [which] could be outlawed” and while the responsible journalist was more friendly to the idea that UK courts would have powers to prosecute British offenders who commit crimes overseas he (it would be a he, wouldn’t it?) clearly subscribes to the idea that anything emanating in Europe must be faintly ridiculous. The Daily Mirror was no better and made the same points while reinforcing them with a picture of a reasonably attractive young man with his thumb and index finger in his mouth. Unfortunately even more reputable newspapers have been quick to trivialise the matter, with The Guardian worrying that new legislation might risk making “sexist remarks and wolf-whistles... criminal offences.”

This has, inevitably, led to a great deal of misunderstanding about both intention and consequence.

Anyone who wishes to know a little more about what the convention is and what it aims to do in practice can read here: Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Even Mail journalists can access this information quite easily, so why anyone would choose to so misrepresent the government’s position so badly is anyone’s guess.

What each signatory actually agrees to do is to “aspire to create a Europe free from violence against women and domestic violence”. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like something positive to me. The preamble to the convention also condemns “all forms of violence against women and domestic violence” and “recognises that the realisation of de jure and de facto equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women”. Of course there’s a great deal more to the convention – a lot of the kind of detail that the likes of the Mail often seem to find the Devil in – but there is absolutely no reason for supposing that signing up to the convention will lead to British prisons suddenly being filled with wolf-whistlers who have had their human rights and basic freedoms to express their macho masculinity denied by a government that refuses to stand up to Brussels. Neither is there cause to suspect that the most insignificant comment could risk prosecution – so sadly no end to tiresome mother-in-law jokes.

What the convention does make clear is this: "psychological violence" (i.e. "seriously impairing a person's psychological integrity through coercion or threats") is to be outlawed. As you may be aware, I work in mental health and have some experience of dealing with the effects of psychological violence. It is a very real phenomenon, often overlooked and which I am pleased is finally being recognised. You don’t have to work in mental health to appreciate that psychological violence by its very nature has the potential to be more damaging and far-reaching in its consequences than other forms of violence. We’re not talking about a few foolish comments here, but serious intimidation, control and bullying.

Having cleared up that small matter, what else does the convention actually commit us to? Quite a lot actually. Our legal system must in future pay compensation to victims of domestic violence. It must also allow for easy dissolution of forced marriages and provide appropriate sentences for those found guilty of forcing women into having abortions or sterilisations – or for enforcing genital mutilation. These still affect many women living in the UK and it is only right that our legal system is armed with the necessary ammunition to tackle what is a very real problem.

The convention also recommends more serious action to be taken to tackle the phenomenon of stalking, something which itself should not be understated and often has a deep psychological impact on its victims.

And so on Thursday – International Women’s Day – the government took a positive step towards tackling violence towards women, and was rewarded with misleading headlines and ridicule from the press. Actually, perhaps it isn’t fair to use the word ridicule. The truth is far worse than that. What certain sections of the media have done on this occasion is to belittle the government’s efforts, to reduce the convention to a legalistic call for criminalising such enlightened activities as wolf-whistling and in the process diminishing the real problems experienced by countless women in the UK and beyond. Trivialising both violence and attempts to combat it is neither clever nor responsible.

Why wolf-whistling is such a precious and integral part of British culture that it requires protection by the likes of the Daily Mail I don’t know. Personally, I find it a patronising gesture on the part of insecure men who are usually over-emphasing their sexual power.

I don’t want the media to uncritically support the government (even I won’t agree to do that!). What would be preferable is that, when the government supports a useful European initiative to prevent violence against women, it receives a bit more positivity than cynical opposition from the Euro-suspicious. Violence is violence is violence – and is a crime against humanity. And that is what the government is getting to grips with, not some puerile and pathetic gestures that the lads find identity in.

As Nick Clegg and David Cameron said in a joint statement, the convention will “lift the standards of protection for women across Europe, give greater support for victims and – crucially – bring many more perpetrators to justice”. Now, what’s so objectionable about that?

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