Today is a test of the true intentions of this Government when it comes to women. With a billion women - one in three -beaten or raped in their lifetime, the One Billion Rising campaign is calling for all to make ending violence towards them a priority. At 11am today Thandie Newton, Ruby Wax and The X-factor’s Jahmene Douglas will lead a flashmob in Parliament Square along with MPs and Peers in support of compulsory sex and relationship education for both boys and girls in schools. Yet despite cross party support- Fiona MacTaggart is leading a debate on this today with the backing of Amber Rudd, Tessa Munt, Valerie Vaz, Annette Brooke, Jessica Lee, Caroline Lucas and Karl Turner - the Government is prevaricating.
Indeed, there are worrying signs that despite the evidence of its prevalence, rather than a renewed determination to tackle violence against women, efforts are slowly and surely being downgraded. From ministers who publish guidance telling women to watch what they wear to avoid being attacked, to a Secretary of State suggesting a caution is an acceptable penalty for rape and a Home Secretary unable to commit to ensuring victims of sexual violence have counselling ahead of appearing in court. In standing with One Billion Rising the Government has the opportunity to send a message this is not the case. So far ministers have dodged this, but today’s vote means they can no longer avoid the question.
Across 203 countries activists are seeking cultural, political and economic change to ensure everyone can lead lives free from fear. Here in Britain our focus is on changing attitudes of our children - when so many think violence against women is justified if she’s late with the dinner or had an affair it’s time we taught not just the mechanics of sex, but the importance of respect and consent.
A third of 16-18-year-old girls say they have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching at school, and a third aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships, while 1 in 16 reporting experiencing rape. High profile cases – whether in Ohio or here in Battersea- show what can happen when sexual abuse and violence goes unchecked and unchallenged in schools. The NSPCC report children as young as twelve “worried, confused and, in some cases, upset by the sexual and ‘sexting’ pressures they face”.Yet provision is woeful at best – with free schools and academies able to avoid it all together if they wish. A quarter of secondary school pupils report getting no SRE whatsoever and 26% of those who do say their teacher doesn’t teach it well. As the charity Brook highlight, the lack of relevant information in schools and at home means 81% of teenagers are getting most of their sexual health knowledge from less reliable sources, leaving them ill prepared to navigate their way through relationships. Labour’s plans to change this became a victim of the ‘wash up’ ahead of the 2010 election. Many have rightly held us all to account for this- now it is time to ensure this does not happen again.
One Billion Rising is the largest volunteer campaign the world has ever seen- with some calling it a ‘feminist tsunami’. . Supporters range from Julia Gillard, Robert Redford, Charlize Theron, to the United Nations and Herman Van Rompey. From South Africa to Peru, through Bute, Manila and Luxembourg via San Francisco, Nigeria and Tel Aviv, activists are organising flashmobs, performances and seeking policies to ensure equal protection within society. You know something special is going on when hotbeds of radical activism as different and distinctive as Bute, Watford, Peterborough and Kirklees are joining the call for change. I welcome and have campaigned for financial education to be part of the national curriculum. But this raises the question- if we can ensure children are aware of compound interest, why can we not also ensure they are aware of consent? We know there are supporters of this in Government. Our message today is we want to work with them if they are willing to challenge those – whether in the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice or in Michael Gove’s Education Department- who stand in the way of making our schools a safe space for all. For all the strategy plans and warm words, its action that counts. And today it is time to rise.