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

Author: Freya Millard, LGIU

Violence against women has been front and centre in the news this year as devastating cases like Sarah Everard, Gabby Petito and Sabina Nessa captured the world’s attention. The reason for the profound response is, sadly, not due to their notoriety but due to how frighteningly relatable the situations that resulted in their deaths are to all women, of every nation. 

Whether it’s obeying authority figures who take advantage like Sarah, trusting the person you love the most like Gabby, or becoming the fascination of a stranger by no fault of your own like Sabina – for a long time now women have been up against the terrifying reality that these situations are not rare, nor something they can control or prevent on their own.

And yet, the advice that has been given over, and over, again in the media (and even from the top down) suggests that this epidemic of gender-based violence can only be resolved by women themselves – if they just change their clothes; never walk alone; don’t go out in the dark; wave down a bus driver.

According to the Femicide Census, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK – a figure that has remained unchanged for a decade. If this year of vigils and protests has shown us anything, it’s that women don’t want to hear these (at best) naive suggestions anymore, they want fundamental changes to ensure their safety and they want violence against their gender to be eliminated.

This is why the United Nations General Assembly has designated today (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.

Reflecting on the past to change the future

Adding to the tension this year has been the stark data released by UN Women UK which found that among those surveyed, only 3% of 18-24 year-olds said they did not recall having experienced sexually harassing behaviour. With 96% saying they don’t report the incidents – and almost half (45%) stating it’s because they don’t think it would help. Evidently, something has gone horribly wrong.

Protest in London after the UN Women UK stats were released. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

There has got to be a point where we remove the responsibility from the victims and focus on ensuring that the fundamental pillars of our societies – national and local government, police, education, social care – take on the responsibility of this vast failure, by making it their collective mission to intervene at whatever lengths necessary.

As Claire Barnett, the executive director of UN Women UK, told Open Access Government:

“This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ – it needs addressing now.”

For many, it will also come as no surprise that following the conviction of Sarah Everard’s killer, police officer Wayne Couzens in September, a new YouGov survey found that for the first time since July 2019 (when they began polling the British public about their confidence in the police to deal with crime in their local area), more people said that they are now unconfident in the police (48%) than confident (43%). A closer examination of the data shows that almost half of women now have less trust in the police.

Distrust in the police is just one example of the current narrative that is building traction among communities: that the systems in place to protect people, are not just failing to do so, but they are part of perpetuating the harm. Disenfranchisement on a mass scale is greatly concerning, but there is no smoke without fire. These concerns, complaints, vigils, rallies and expressions of frustration are not unfounded. As local authority members, listening, accepting and responding to the concerns that are expressed by citizens is the first step in how you play your vital role of keeping communities together.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Similar reflection has been conducted in the recent report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, which investigated the police response to violence against women and girls. The report foreword states:

“Every week brought new data or surveys on the crimes committed against women and girls; on the harassment they experience in public spaces, online, in their homes or schools, or where they work; on how unsafe they feel and the extra precautions they take as a result. The problem is known, consistent and deep-rooted in its presence, and growing in the forms it takes.”

This LGIU briefing outlines the main findings of the report and its implications for national and local approaches to tackling violence against women. The key points include the following:

  • Despite improvements over the past decade, there are still many inconsistencies in individual case handling, due to agencies working in different places, and a lack of clarity in the national strategy.
  • More effective multi-agency collaboration is vital, especially in supporting victims and survivors, improving the safety of public spaces and in prevention work.
  • The police alone cannot solve violence against women and girls, as it is a societal problem that requires a societal response – which is why local government has to step up.

The worst offender: domestic violence

The most common incident of violence against women is domestic violence and in addition to other widespread impacts, Covid-19 has shined a light on this social pandemic. The soaring rates of domestic abuse have been an awful consequence of isolating – victims found themselves trapped with their abusers.

Tackling domestic violence

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse and domestic abuse is the most frequent form of violence against women, which is why there is no eliminating violence against women without addressing the biggest elephant in the room.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman released their new report today, Learning to improve council services for domestic abuse victims. The report highlights the experiences of a small group of survivors of domestic abuse who were let down by their local authority. They also investigated complaints about the way councils administered their duties towards victims across a range of services.

The report finds that common issues included delays in dealing with homelessness applications (an incredibly critical issue when domestic violence is the leading cause of female homelessness); failing to recognise when someone is a victim of domestic abuse; failure to work collaboratively with other agencies; and poor communication. The report is not all negative though, it also shares good practice and learning points from the investigations to help local authorities learn from past errors and make a real difference in eliminating violence against women in their communities. As written at the start of the report, the core purpose is simple:

“If it keeps even a single person safe from abuse it’s worth it”

We understand that for local authorities, all attention and resources have been truly stretched to capacity during the last two years as they tackled the turbulent terrain of Covid-19. Yet, even in these difficult times, there are countless examples of how local government has been on the ground prioritising the most vulnerable while also sharing best practices, ideas and approaches to learn from each other – something that we have proudly facilitated at LGIU. One of our recent LGIU briefings highlighted some of these great examples of frontline efforts to address this devasting issue by implementing innovative ways to support victims, not just during the pandemic but beyond it too.

Progress was also made on a national level back in April when long-awaited legislation on domestic abuse finally became law in England and Wales. In response, one of our briefings looked in-depth at the main components and gaps in the new legislation – including the new statutory duties imposed on relevant local authorities. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is regarded by many as a ‘landmark piece of legislation’. The next step forward for local government is to ensure its implementation is smooth and they consistently provide the essential support needed by victims of domestic abuse and their children, including early intervention and prevention activities.

Similarly, on the other side of the world in Australia, domestic and family violence is proven to require local government intervention. This time last year, the Social and Community Team of Local Government New South Wales wrote a briefing which overviews the various ways local government can respond to domestic violence and what initiatives, actions and resources are available to help them prevent it from happening in the first place. One valuable resource highlighted was the new Prevention Toolkit for Local Government – an online resource with templates and guidelines to help councils prevent violence against women, in both their workplaces and communities.

As part of this year’s campaign to end gender-based violence, Respect Victoria is running its ‘Respect Is’ campaign to amplify messages from survivors and community advocates. They have produced a 16 Days of Activism toolkit with great suggestions about what your organisations can do.

Similarly, the Highland Violence Against Women Partnership is one of the organisations calling on everyone today, and across the next 16 days of activism, to take a pledge and share what they will do to help end violence against women and girls using the #WhatWillYouDo hashtag on social media. We encourage all of our members to engage with that question offline and/or online. As explained by the UN:

“Stopping this violence starts with believing survivors, adopting comprehensive and inclusive approaches that tackle the root causes, transform harmful social norms, and empower women and girls. With survivor-centred essential services across policing, justice, health, and social sectors, and sufficient financing for the women’s rights agenda, we can end gender-based violence.”

We may be separated by borders but we are united by the drive to make our communities better and, in turn, that makes the world a better place. Domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is an atrocity; a ‘public health crisis’ and a ‘violation of human rights’, but it is not inevitable – it can and must be stopped and local government can and must play a part.

Help us highlight what councils are doing by sharing with us how your members and officers are working to address both violence against women and domestic violence in your communities. Share your story with us here.

How local governments are supporting domestic violence victims during the pandemic and beyond

The pandemic exposed high rates of domestic abuse and the dangers of being locked down and isolated with abusers for long periods of time. From challenging times, some important legislation and service changes have been implemented. Read the briefing here.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021

The long-awaited legislation on domestic abuse became law in April 2021. What are its main components and are there gaps in what it covers? The Act imposes new statutory duties on the relevant local authorities and these are summarised here. Read the briefing here.

Domestic and family violence: the role of local government

In this briefing, the Social and Community Team of Local Government NSW provide an overview of local government initiatives, actions and links to resources to prevent and respond to domestic and family violence. Read the briefing here.

How can we make urban planning work for women?

Urban planning and governance requires gender sensitivity if it is to be sustainable, equitable, and effective. ‘Mainstreaming’ gender considerations into planning processes takes urban planning beyond the realm of efficiency into solving issues of social, economic and political equity – promoting civic engagement among women and minorities in the process. Read the briefing here.

The gender effect: Covid-19 and the impact on women

Although everyone is affected by Covid-19, women’s experiences of the pandemic and lockdown can be significantly different to men’s. Policy makers at national and local level need to listen to women and ensure that policies meet their specific challenges, or the pandemic may exacerbate existing gender inequalities. Read the briefing here.

Domestic violence: 16 days of activism

Back in 2019, we spoke with our then-recent Cllr Award winner, Janet Gardner, about her work in tackling domestic abuse and gender-based violence while also looking at some other examples of local government violence against women interventions around the world. Read the blog here.

Women’s Aid: Break the silence

As part of the UN international campaign to end violence against women, the charity Women’s Aid has released a new video about how communities can respond to domestic violence that we believe our members will find insightful.