In Conversation With Cllr Connor McManus About Tackling Gender Based Violence at Midlothian Council

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that commences on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. In honour of this global campaign, we spoke with Midlothian Council’s Equalities Champion, Cllr Connor McManus.

To start us with, it would be great to hear about yourself and your current role.

My name is Connor McManus, I am 23 and I was born in the constituency I represent: Penicuik, Midlothian. After high school I did a degree in history at Stirling University and I graduated in May 2022, the same month I was elected as Councillor for the Penicuik district. From there I was nominated to be deputy provost of Midlothian Council and given the responsibility for equalities.

I was always aware of equality issues and I’ve always been a bit of an activist so I think it was a natural suggestion to put me in this role. Entering into the role of Equalities Champion, I have always had ideas to combat violence against women and I personally know people affected by domestic violence, so it is something I am quite passionate about. So there is the background for where I am currently at.

Currently, you’re trying to get Midlothian Council White Ribbon accredited. What does this process entail? 

The White Ribbon campaign is a campaign was designed for men, to get men talking about acts of violence against women. The point is, if men don’t recognise the subconscious attitudes and start talking about it, then the general societal change that is required will not occur. So wearing the White Ribbon, the idea is that it will spark people’s curiosity and kick start these conversations. This is really important as otherwise men can find it difficult to discuss the topic off the cuff. So the idea is that you see the ribbon, you ask about the ribbon, and it sparks a conversation where people are left more informed.

Men who are heavily involved in the White Ribbon campaign receive training and get advice on how to conduct themselves in public, and how to speak to other men about these issues. But overall, the point of the campaign is to get men talking and informed about the issues of gender based violence.

Click here to find White Ribbon’s website and sign-up.

What does this accreditation offer for your local government? And do you think it’s important for more local governments to seek out accreditation?  

Currently, we are setting up a Committee that I will Chair and will involve key stakeholders from other third sector organisations who deal with domestic violence, such as Women’s Aid and Police Scotland. The goal is to come up with accessible and trusted routes for reporting domestic violence and discover ways that we as a local authority can tackle domestic violence. So while the White Ribbon accreditation is great, but the learning is the valuable aspect. The value of the Committee is to bring everyone in the one room and shed new light on aspects we haven’t thought about.

That is what we are doing at the moment, and once we get to a point where we are sufficiently tackling this issue, we may be granted the accreditation. I think the key importance of the White Ribbon accreditation is that if granted, we will become more of a trusted partner in the community, and the hope is that it will make it easier for people to come forward and seek help. This is an overarching goal, to be a Council where people come to us for help.

In terms of the working relationship with our neighbouring local governments, at first, this Committee will focus primarily on our policy. Nonetheless, we have held meetings with Councillors from Edinburgh and we are discussing how Edinburgh City Council can have a White Ribbon champion. Personally, I would welcome other local governments setting up their own committees so we can share ideas and workings. However, it is important to recognise that to really tackle domestic violence, you need to be area specific and know your area quite well. This policy direction should also operate at the national level.

Back to Midlothian Council, the plan is to have the Committee up and running early next year, with the first meeting planned for January. The police are already really engaged and are looking forward to being involved, as are Womens Aid.

As we know, the White Ribbon campaign is all about engaging men in their role to stop violence against women, however, a big barrier to this is the deep-rooted nature of toxic and aggressive masculinity in the wider culture – what actionable things do you think local government can do to try and change this culture? 

Changing the societal attitudes that underpin violence against women requires a short and long term approach.

Looking at the short term, a key priority is changing our staff attitudes. As a small local authority, it is not uncommon for us to be the biggest employer in our communities. Recognising this, if we can supply training through all our employment routes, then we can make sure the people we employ are going into the community with the right information and that can be quite an effective method. Training our workforce to be informed is probably a key driver in changing the societal attitudes which require the White Ribbon campaign.

Other programmes Midlothian Council are looking at involves safe walking route campaigns and getting local businesses involved, and those programmes will also sparks conversations about domestic violence.

Looking to the long term, if you are going to change a deep rooted societal attitude, it starts in education. If it is not something comfortable to speak about in schools, then you are not going to be comfortable to talk about it in your adult life. If it is conversations that we can start in schools, we can make sure every person from every gender background is aware of domestic violence, how to recognise it and report it. So in the long term, that can change societal attitudes that contribute to violence against women. So these conversations in schools means every gender background should be aware of domestic violence, how to recognise it and how to report it.

Overall, changing societal attitudes is the key answer in tackling violence against women, and if you engage youth and change social attitudes when they are young, you face a greater likelihood of long term success.

(Interview continues below)

Local government’s role in the epidemic of violence against women

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, followed by 16 days of activism. The important question now is how can this translate into action at a global level? As local authority members know all too well, it all begins with action at a local level.

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Statistically, the most common incident of violence against women is domestic – local government are certainly at the forefront of defence when it comes to this global epidemic. What role can local governments play in improving equality within their own communities, so that women are better supported and equipped to leave their abusers permanently? 

Midlothian Council has already taken an extensive array of actions. Before I was elected in May, our Council was recognised for improving gender equality and by driving awareness of domestic violence. A key example of this is our website page where you can get advice on where to go, who to speak to and our trusted partners. Importantly, our website also teaches you how to cover your tracks online, providing a safe online route for those facing domestic violence. It teaches you how to hide your activity from an abuser’s watch, by showing how to delete your search history and how to keep safe online. This is a crucial example of how as a local government, we can provide effective help, but privately.

We are also trauma training all our staff. This means that if you contact our homelessness, housing or financial help departments, our staff will be fully informed on signposting and assisting you, to ensure you receive immediate help.

At the moment, we started a project to adopt a unit of flats in a private location which will not be disclosed in any documents. We recognise the Council’s duty to guarantee that women who come to us to escape these situations have the appropriate safeguarding. Providing a protected safe house for women to contact and gain access will be a crucial temporary accommodation. Protected by security, this can accommodate families and ensures that we are not solely reliant on third sector organisations to intervene.

However, even with all these projects we will always work closely with the third sector. This is key in delivering services at the moment, so we need to make sure we are engaged and know how to do that. We are providing those key routes to access help, but accessing the expertise of the third sector is crucial. We need to keep that in mind and keep our trusted partners close so they are involved in all key decisions we make in this area.

As well as this, we have recognised the link between poverty and the lack of escape routes. As every other Council will know, supporting people in the Cost of Living crisis is a key priority this winter. However, it is important to recognise the connection between poverty and domestic violence. In doing so, the Midlothian Cost of Living support page provides quick links about accessing domestic violence help. This is just one example of how Council’s can recognise and adapt services.

We have also discussed setting an example as an administration. As Councillors in the administration, we are gender balanced at the moment, both in the civic team and in the cabinet. Representing all different areas of policy, it sets a great example from the outset as an equal gendered approach ensures people feel represented.

Moreover, it is important to recognise the platform of the Council. We are always there to highlight and celebrate the local wins, for example Penicuik Athletic’s women’s U-16 recent success in the Scottish Challenge Cup.

On the flip side, we are quick to use our platform to call out bad behaviour. Midlothian is not the only Scottish area where someone who has been convicted in a civil court of domestic abuse, then goes onto be signed by a professional sports team. As a Council we are first to call out this behaviour and this is somewhere we lead the way. The understanding here is that if we champion the good things in sport, then we also need to call out the wrong doings.

You see Councils online and in the community, so we need to recognise and use that platform for good. We have done so in the past, for example in December 2021, Midlothian changed the Council housing policy, to include that if you are a domestic abuser and a current threat to those near you, that qualifies as grounds for eviction.

Overall, as a front line of defence we are doing quite well so far, but there is always more that can be done.

To finish off, what do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to the issue of violence against women? Or What is one thing you wish everyone knew about the issue of violence against women and girls? 

I wish that everyone knew, statistically, it is more than likely they know someone who has been affected by domestic violence. I think the biggest misconception that should be highlighted is the general belief that domestic violence doesn’t happen. To me, that seems bonkers. However, to the wider public it is not talked about enough and that means there is not the widespread recognition that nowhere is free from domestic violence.

If this was widely understood, I think this would be a key driver in changing attitudes, getting people talking, and removing that societal shame that victims of domestic abuse face.

So that is why the White Ribbon campaign is so important. It is a crucial way of getting people talking, and making people aware that they will know someone who will have experienced domestic violence in the past and hopefully it changes their mindset.

Global Local bulletin: Violence against women and girls