Help needed for 20,000 Welsh women

Cathy Owens says its time for Wales to lead the way by appointing a Commissioner to tackle sexual violence

One of the most rewarding campaigns I have been involved with over the last few years has been working with the Wales Violence Against Women Action Group to tackling the terrible level of violence that women in Wales suffer every day. Currently, I am working with Rape Crisis (England and Wales), and my focus is on ensuring new legislation adequately reflects the needs of survivors of sexual violence across Wales.

Some 150,000 women will suffer some form of violence each year in Wales, because they are women. We estimate that 20,000 women may suffer from sexual violence in Wales annually. It’s unacceptable and we need to do more to prevent it.

We have come a long way in the last ten years, with new national guidance and a national strategy that recognises the need to tackle not just domestic abuse, but other forms of violence such as sexual assault, genital mutilation, and forced marriage. All these forms of violence are linked by the insidious and seemingly immutable force of gender prejudice in our society.

We are looking forward to working with the Welsh Government on the anticipated Bill that will see a new attempt to tackle the problem. Currently it has the cumbersome working title The Ending Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Bill, but is referred to by campaigners as the Violence Against Women Bill. We are likely to see greater expectations on local authorities to deliver strategies to tackle violence against women, though we are unlikely to see the significant level of funding required that will enable services for victims to become a statutory right.

We have been fighting to tackle the postcode lottery of services across Wales for years. Although the Bill might not be going as far as we would like, in its early form there are mechanisms that should help protect local and national budgets for victims services such as specialist counselling and refuge.

One of the proposals in the White Paper is the appointment of a Ministerial Adviser on violence against women. We have called for an external adviser for many years. So we are pleased that the need for both expert advice and external challenge has been recognised.

In Wales, we have led the way with a Commissioner for Children, for Older People, and for the Welsh Language. Why not a Commissioner for tackling Violence Against Women? I would make the argument for creating a new, strong, independent voice to tackle the level of violence to hold to account governments at every level, because structural factors and lack of progress demands this.

Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis groups simply do not have the capacity to challenge and lobby every local authority across Wales. There is one Rape Crisis group in Wales, and the organisation is run entirely by volunteers.

The enormous commitment to tackle violence is spread thinly across organisations focused heavily on helping women, men and families in crisis. All are heavily reliant on government funding and are wary of biting the hand that feeds. There is no well-resourced independent sector as with children, older people, energy, environment or business.

We need a strong independent voice that can monitor the services available to tackle violence against women, challenge poor performance across Wales, hold officials to account, and speak truth to power.

I have had enough of Ministers delivering effective legislation and strategy only to see them watered down or applied in a haphazard fashion locally. Provision for victims of rape has historically been piecemeal and ad-hoc.  A Commissioner would ensure strong, strategic and specialist leadership, which would have a direct impact on frontline service delivery and ultimately on the lives of women who experience violence.

The Commissioner should play a role in the commissioning of services as well as ensuring the standardisation of services, policies and procedures for all public and third sector bodies.

The appointment would be the first appointment of its kind in the UK and send a clear message that the Welsh Government is determined to reduce the devastating emotional, sexual and physical impact of violence against women.

The post holder does not even have to be called a Commissioner. Maybe a Tsar, a Nuncio or a Plenipotentiary may be going to far. But the current suggested title of Adviser seems to downplay the importance of holding the Welsh Government’s feet to the fire. Perhaps a National Director is the title required. Ultimately, the title is less important than the once-in-a-generation opportunity to legislate to tackle violence against women in Wales. We will fail if we do not deliver a bill that actually has an impact on the real experience of women in Wales.

Cathy Owens is a Director of the lobbying organisation Deryn and represents Rape Crisis England and Wales

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