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

5 thoughts on “Help needed for 20,000 Welsh women

  1. Not sure if setting up of yet another Commissioner is a right way forward as in my view all current Welsh Commissioners are failing in their duties to those they aim to serve and protect with perhaps a notable exception in the shape of Mary Huws who is hell bent on imposing the Y Fro language and culture and by any means and does so largely unchecked by the WAG who are toothless and incapable of seeing the folly behind the Y Fro Commissioners’ demands.

    Violence against any sector of population is unacceptable and women should not be treated differently to any other segment of Welsh population but this is not to say that Cathy Owen does not have a point and something must be done but in a society that’s built on indifference and apathy to real social problems that no one wants to know about especially in Wales another segment of bureaucracy is not going to help.

    As a society we have huge problems and we have many generations of children who lost their youth or childhood through parental indifference and equally through neglect by the state and its agencies and who have no social values or understanding of responsibility or social values in any shape or form and see and accept violence as something normal as they never learned different or ever had a loving home.

    These very children are multiplying at phenomenal rate and through my human rights work I have met young people in many parts of Wales that have children from different partners and are still teenagers themselves living in a world of drug abuse, unemployment and significant violence and are exceptionally hard to help…

    We must find a way to tackle violence issues and perhaps the start point should be to concentrate on our youth and perhaps create ‘foster parents’ within school environment to give little and vulnerable ones some measure of understanding that there is someone there in our cruel world who does care for them!?

  2. There are already laws in place against every class of sexual violence mentioned in this article. After years of relative inactivity the UK government is finally starting to get its act together – this is a summary of current policy:

    Why isn’t enough progress being made? It looks as if the main problems beyond cultural inertia are a lack of knowledge of the established ‘cultural dangers’, lack of joined-up thinking and communication between the large numbers of agencies involved, and a continuing failure to abandon mindless obedience to the great god of political correctness – both aggravated by the tendency of the so-called liberal left in public life who see bloated public administration and pandering to ethnic minorities to be an integral part of their political strategy.

    Lines of communication need to be shortened and co-ordinated and that often includes co-ordination across borders as many of these crimes happen while the young females are abroad. Professionals in several fields need to be educated to recognise both the known cultural risks and the symptoms rather than looking the other way and pretending it doesn’t happen. Prevention should be the main aim.

    With forced marriage, so-called honour violence, and FGM it also needs to be recognised that this is frequently crime perpetrated, on a generational basis, by women against other young women and girls. It might help if some women working in these fields recognised this and stopped trying to make it out to be entirely a male dominated problem as well as losing some of their PC cultural sensitivity. Start treading on some matriarchal toes…

    The LAST thing these victims need is a needless and probably a confusing additional layer of low-grade law from the snouts in the trough in Wales. The same goes for yet another Commissioner – it’s really quite hard to see any benefits from the existing Commissioners who invariably claim lack of jurisdiction or power when presented with real-world problems. What are they for other than window-dressing?

    Catch the at-risk girls young. Put the money into training teachers, bring in specialists to talk openly about these problems so peer-pressure and peer-support starts to work better, use in-school poster campaigns with clear messages and clear routes to relevant specialised advice available locally, or by phone, or via the internet. Provide more safe-houses out of general taxation – it should not be left to Charities to provide this service.

    Charities do a lot of great work – having grown up around unacceptable levels of cultural violence against women in West Yorkshire I am particularly pround of Karma Nirvana

    who seem to achieve quite a lot with very little – but these kinds of facilities need to be much more widely and obviously available and they need to link direct to the national and international agencies not to another vanity project in Wales.

  3. These statistics make me feel angry and ashamed as a man. I believe this situation will only change when men themselves begin to better understand and address the deep ambivalence and confusion that many men obviously feel about sexuality, intimacy and love, with the result that too many behave in deeply unconscious, destructive and self-destructive ways (as we are sadly learning all too much about, in the recent coverage about child abuse by celebrities, priests, and other men in positions of power).

    If you have any doubt about whether feelings of inadequacy and confusion around sexuality are a widespread problem amongst the male population, just have a peek at the kind of pornography that is consumed in such great quantities these days (predominantly by men)! Also ask yourself why most men just prefer to look the other way when faced with evidence about the shocking levels of male sexual (and non-sexual) violence and abuse.

    It feels like a kind of mental illness has infected the whole male population in relation to sex and intimacy, which is only exacerbated by the distorted images of masculinity which are constantly perpetuated in our entertainment and news media, resulting in a seemingly widespread need by men to exert power over, and abuse, the most vulnerable.

    But this core reason for the prevalence of male sexual abuse is virtually never mentioned publicly in relation to any of the cases which come to light. The elephant in the room has an erection. We men have a huge and urgent responsibility to understand ourselves better, take responsibility for making change in mainstream male culture, and become the allies of women in doing whatever we can to change the shameful reality of violence against women.

    Both women and men will be the beneficiaries of this. When abuse takes place, no one ‘wins’, even though the pain and bruises are experienced infinitely more directly by those on the receiving end. Unless we men begin to own up to, and have open discussion about abusive and distorted male attitudes and patterns of behaviour in relation to women (even if those patterns only reflect themselves in thoughts and fantasies, rather than in direct action), and begin to try to properly understand the roots of male violence, legislation will just drive this ‘problem’ underground and nothing will ever change.

  4. Whatever the problem, legislation without the finance to ensure compliance is folly.

  5. This is clearly a very serious subject, however another public post, plus all the support staff isn’t affordable. There needs to be a ‘cull’ of these non-jobs and transfer legal responsibility back to the Police and Social Services. Clearly we need a ‘Commissioner’ for every aspect of life, and in Wales/Cymru they must be Welsh speaking, and preferably women, and if got a disability all the better.

    To ‘guarantee’ a job it helps in the health/social field if you are overweight (in addition to previous talents) as it shows you too have problems, even if you are earning £100K per year and generous travelling expenses to get you to the whole country. We are going MAD, and unfortunately that seems the way to get on. Ps. I’ve got a ‘dodgy’ backhand so perhaps counselling, or a CZAR is needed to assist such a deficiency. I won’t even mention AWEMA which was a trail blazer in good and open public policies, and ‘load a money’ to boot.

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