Equally Safe 2023 - preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls: strategy

The Scottish Government and COSLA's commitment to preventing and eradicating this violence and addressing the underlying attitudes and systems that perpetuate it.

What is Violence Against Women and Girls?

VAWG is a blight on Scottish society. It is a consequence of gender inequality and harms all of us. Everyone has a role to play in tackling it and it is important we have a shared understanding of the issue to do so. We need to understand what VAWG is and how it impacts those who experience it, its impact on society more generally, the scale of the problem, and what causes it.

“By breaking down the barriers that have hindered the full participation of women and girls in every aspect of society, we unleash the untapped potential that can drive progress and prosperity for all.”[1]

VAWG occurs in every community across Scotland. It is often overlooked, minimised, accepted as the norm, or justified to protect the so-called honour of a family, community, or faith group. Baroness Kennedy notes that “the daily grind of sexual harassment and abuse degrades women’s lives, yet it seems to be accepted as part of what it means to be a woman.”[2]

In order to address harmful attitudes to women and girls, misogyny that permeates our society must be tackled. Misogyny has been defined as “a way of thinking that upholds the primary status of men and a sense of male entitlement, while subordinating women and limiting their power and freedom. Conduct based on this thinking can include a range of abusive and controlling behaviours including rape, sexual offences, harassment and bullying, and domestic abuse.”[3] This is an example of gender inequality.

By challenging misogyny, harmful assumptions and stereotypes, we pave the way for effective dismantling of gender-based discrimination starting from childhood, and continuing into adulthood, preventing, and tackling the deep harms that gender inequalities cause in the lives of girls and women and boys and men.

“I have experienced death/violence/rape threats online for speaking up... about my street harassment. One man tweeted that they would love to watch me getting my teeth kicked in, many others said I was too unattractive for my experiences to be true, they didn’t believe it had happened.”[5]

Numerous studies link sexualised violence in the media to increases in violence towards women, rape myth acceptance and anti-women attitudes.[4] Furthermore, the prevalence of and easy access to pornography contributes to reinforcing unequal sexualised relations between men and women. A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England established that the average age at which children first view pornography, much of which depicts degrading acts and violence against women, is 13.[6] The report highlighted that children themselves suggested direct links between pornography exposure and harmful sexual behaviour exhibited by young men. Another study of content from two major pornographic websites highlights that women’s responses to physical aggression were either “positive” or “neutral” and rarely “negative”.[7] This highlights the negative impact on the understanding of both men and boys and women and girls of what positive, healthy, relationships look and feel like. All these factors contribute towards the desensitisation of society to VAWG, for this to go unchallenged, be normalised, or dismissed as unimportant.

“Porn is often the starting point for young people when it comes to sex, how to have sex and what to expect.” (young woman, 20, who first saw pornography aged 10)[8]

Our Equally Safe strategy seeks to prevent VAWG from occurring in the first place, as well as ensuring effective response to those affected and to those who perpetrate it. We’re committed to effective and person-centred approaches to justice in which everyone can trust.

“Since the age of 13, I had been experiencing boys looking up my skirt and lifting my kilt up… On quite a few occasions I knew that they were taking photos up my kilt too but I was too embarrassed to say anything.”[9]


The phrase violence against women and girls is used to describe violent and abusive behaviour directed at women and girls because they are women and girls. It is behaviour which is carried out predominantly by men. It is an abuse of power and stems from systemic, deep-rooted women’s inequality. VAWG limits women’s and girls’ freedom and potential and is a fundamental violation of human rights.

Our shared understanding defines VAWG as a form of gender-based violence (GBV). GBV is defined as “any form of violence used to establish, enforce or perpetuate gender inequalities and keep in place gendered orders”.[11] While the terms VAWG and GBV are sometimes used interchangeably, VAWG is a subset of GBV specifically targeting women and girls due to their unequal status in society.

“Such violence cannot be understood in isolation from the norms, social structure and gender roles within the community which greatly influence women’s risk of VAWG.”[10]

This strategy’s definition of VAWG includes the actual and threat of:[12]

  • physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and financial abuse occurring in the family, within the general community, and in institutions in both physical and digital spaces and places
  • domestic abuse/coercive controlling behaviours, stalking, rape, incest, sexual harassment, bullying, and intimidation
  • commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), including prostitution, lap dancing, stripping, pornography
  • human trafficking, including for the purposes of domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation, which may include gangs and organised criminal networks
  • child abuse occurring within family settings, including domestic abuse, and sexual abuse by male family members including siblings
  • child sexual abuse and exploitation including the production and sharing of indecent images of children
  • honour-based abuse, including forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), dowry abuse and ‘honour based’ coercive control and killings.

Boys experience domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and exploitation in significant numbers. That is why the Equally Safe strategy covers all children and young people.

This strategy recognises that women, children, and young people may experience multiple forms of VAWG simultaneously and across their lifetime.

Our definition of VAWG is based on the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993).[13] This says that we need to understand this type of violence within the context of society’s different expectations of men and women and is a result of women’s unequal position in society. Such violence cannot be understood in isolation from the norms, social structure and gender roles within the community, which greatly influence women’s risk of VAWG.

This means we understand that gender inequality is a root cause of VAWG.

Despite many advances, there remain persistent inequalities between men and women in Scotland across areas of social, political, economic and cultural life. In particular, gender stereotypes and norms continue to limit women’s access to opportunities in the labour market and economic resources, which affects levels of economic independence. Societal expectations of men and women as parents are also gendered, and this has implications on their engagement with systems and services. For example, lower expectations of men as parents makes it harder to hold perpetrators accountable for the harm they are causing children and families. Furthermore, higher expectations for women as parents means they are more likely to be blamed for the impact of the perpetrator’s behaviours on the children.

Women do not currently have the same life chances as men – there are a number of reasons for this, including institutional sexism and disproportionate levels of economic dependence. The gender pay gap in 2021 of 3.6% (calculated as the median on full-time earnings) is one example.[14] The persistent gender segregation across several industries and occupations which leads to women being over-represented in lower paid sectors and insecure working conditions is another. Women still do the majority of domestic labour in the home including unpaid care, whether for children or for older dependants and others. Access to, as well as the high cost of, childcare, can present significant barriers to women accessing employability services that can support them to re-enter, or progress within, the labour market. Women over 50 can face additional barriers if they have multiple consecutive caring responsibilities for children, grandchildren, and elderly parents. Tackling these structural inequalities is a necessary part of tackling women’s inequality, and consequently VAWG.

Shared and differing experiences

Along with their sex, women and girls with other protected characteristics may experience increased risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation due to the prejudice and structural barriers in society which cause inequality.

The definition of VAWG across all protected characteristics defined by equality legislation – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. We must also recognise the multiple and intersecting inequalities that some women face. This includes women in poverty and care experienced women. We recognise that all children and young people can also be affected by these compounding inequalities, with girls experiencing particularly high rates of inequality and violence.

“You have to recognise intersectionality and the overlapping discrimination they [women] may experience because of factors like their age, their gender and the specific community they belong to. Every woman’s experience will be different.”[15]

Gender norms that promote ideals of masculinity based on men’s superiority, authority, entitlement, and power can lead to abuse, exploitation, and sexual violence against children and young people. Furthermore, the social position of children involves not only their reliance upon adults for all of their basic material and emotional needs, but also subordination to adult authority, a relationship often reproduced in dynamics between older and younger children. Children and young people can be subjected to the harms caused by GBV both by witnessing others being harmed, and by direct experience of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, rape, trafficking, forced marriage and FGM. Girls and young women may experience abuse and coercive control in their intimate relationships outside the family home. This is often unrecognised with a resulting gap in service provision.

Evidence suggests child sexual abuse affects a significant minority of the population, but with a higher prevalence (two to three times higher) amongst girls and women. While many children who display problematic or harmful sexual behaviour have experienced abuse and maltreatment, it is important to note that not all children who are abused will go on to abuse. That is why the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2021 states that in all cases “where a child or young person displays sexual behaviour that may cause significant harm, immediate consideration should be given as to whether action should be taken under child protection procedures, in order both to protect children harmed or at risk of harm by the behaviour and to address any child protection concerns that may at least in part explain why the child/young person has behaved in such a way”.

“They kept everything a secret ‘cause I was a child, but of course, it happened to me - nobody else. So they should have told me what was happening and what was-nae.”[16]

Children and young people have the right to be cared for, to be protected from abuse, harm and exploitation, and to grow up in a safe environment in which their rights and needs are respected. In all cases where it is suspected that a child or young person may be a victim of GBV, their safety is paramount. Child protection procedures must be initiated immediately as outlined in the National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland. They are also entitled to assistance and support to recover physically and emotionally from any violence, abuse, or exploitation they have experienced. Protection of and support to victim/survivors of GBV should be child-centred and in line with the Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) values and principles to ensure that the wellbeing of children and young people is enhanced and that they get the right help at the right time, for as long as is needed. This must be done in a sensitive way that does not deter women experiencing abuse from seeking support.

“I kissed my partner goodbye as she got off a bus and a drunk man in the next seat asked if he could join in. After my partner left and I was sitting by myself he kept talking to me about how he would “show me a better time”, and when I asked him to leave me alone he called me a slur and spat at me. In the moment this made me feel unsafe.”[17]

Lesbian and bisexual women and girls experience violence, abuse, and exploitation which target their sexual orientation. This includes “corrective rape”. Homophobia and biphobia can encourage VAWG (or be used by perpetrators as components of VAWG).

Specific risk factors affecting transgender women and girls include high levels of transphobic street harassment and hate crime, and greater levels of social isolation. These lead to high levels of risk and increased difficulties in accessing services. Members of the trans community are often over-represented in the sex industry,[18] linked to wider discrimination and reduced options.

“Women from marginalised communities often experience discrimination based on their race, gender, and religion. The inherent societal bias places them at a disadvantage from the beginning. Supporting ethnic minority women facing abuse can be complex due to additional obstacles, including immigration challenges, language barriers, and entrenched patriarchal structures within their communities.”[20]

It is widely acknowledged that BME women and girls may face more barriers to support and services than the general population. These can include language barriers, immigration status, institutional racism, and cultural insensitivity. These barriers are compounded for BME women experiencing VAWG. BME women and girls are disproportionately affected by VAWG and their experiences may be exacerbated and reinforced by patriarchal ideas and practices by religious and/or community leaders. BME women and girls are also subjected to racist, misogynist verbal harassment in public spaces.[19] Harmful practices such as FGM and forced marriages can be more prevalent among faith-based or minoritised communities and often include multiple perpetrators.

Additional barriers to Gypsy/Traveller women seeking help include prejudice and ignorance among the wider public towards Gypsy/Travellers; low literacy levels; and a lack of trust in and fear of getting involved with services.

“Because of the ways gypsy/ travellers live, they are frightened their cultures will be discriminated against so they won’t tend to come forward to disclose abuse they’ve experienced. It’s about key professionals not having an appreciation of different cultures and saying things that immediately destroy relationships that could have been key to someone seeking help.”[21]

Disabled women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and coercion. Research undertaken by the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities (SCLD) highlights that people with a learning disability may be 10 to 12 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their non-disabled peers.[23] They can also face significant barriers to accessing support due to services not meeting their needs or making assumptions about their capacity or credibility.

“A lot of times women with learning disabilities who reach for support are put through more pain after abuse, because we are not listened to or believed.”[22]

Older women may be either caring for, or being cared for by, their abuser. This abuse may be hidden as signs of physical and psychological abuse may be overlooked on account of a person’s age. Older women also face significant barriers to support or when trying to leave an abusive partner, including isolation, long-term health consequences or disabilities, or they are reliant on their abuser for care or money. Structural gender inequality, including pension policies, reinforces older women’s financial reliance on an abusive partner.

Refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls may have experienced various forms of VAWG either in their country of origin, during their journey to Scotland, or upon arrival.[24] We recognise conflict and displacement as key sites where VAWG exists which can create additional risks for those victim/survivors. Women seeking asylum may also be reluctant to disclose or report abuse occurring in the UK for fear of negative experiences with professionals due to institutional racism, unconscious bias and hostile Immigration policies. Women are also concerned that court cases and police reports could negatively affect their asylum claim. Complex trauma can manifest in different ways, and women and girls can find it very difficult to disclose their experiences.

“Most ethnic minority women still have a fear of speaking out. They have had no support from those who should have acted as a support system in the past so they have lost faith in ever finding help. Others fear society’s judgement as sometimes the victim is blamed. They feel guilty.”[25]

Women who are in the UK on a spousal or family visa which is dependent on the status of a partner can be at risk of specific forms of abuse including, for example, having restricted or no access to money or their passports. This can be a barrier to leaving an abusive partner. Women with insecure immigration status, for example women who have breached a visa condition or those who have been trafficked to the UK, can also be at increased risk of exploitation. Fear of being deported can make women reluctant to report violence, abuse, or exploitation. Restricted access or no recourse to public funds constrain the ability of migrant and asylum-seeking women to leave an abusive or exploitative partner by restricting their access to support services and many social security entitlements.

“It’s hard enough to ‘come-out’ under normal circumstances never mind if you’re being abused too.”[26]

Women living in different geographical communities – rural, urban, and island – may experience different challenges. For example, the distance between houses in rural settings are often greater than in urban areas meaning that victims/survivors of abuse may be extremely (or further) isolated with abuse and its harms more hidden. Help-seeking and service interventions can be more challenging as services may be located many miles away, with distances exacerbated by limited public transport and sporadic and limited access to the internet or mobile phone signal. Women may face greater risks in small rural or island communities when seeking support, or when leaving abuse, through lack of privacy and anonymity, with limited and highly public routes to reach safety, heightening chances of surveillance and interception. In crowded urban environments, finding safe spaces can be difficult. Women may lack places where they can seek refuge or assistance in times of danger.

Online and tech-enabled VAWG

We live in a digital world. Whether it is social media, internet at work and/or for leisure, many of us now move seamlessly between being offline and online. While this has brought benefits in our ability to connect and engage with each other, the speed and complexity of technological change and the range of digital tools available provides new challenges. The technology to directly abuse, track, monitor covertly, or propagate abusive content, including with advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and AI generated images and videos (often known as ‘deep fakes’) is now widely accessible and available. VAWG is therefore experienced offline and online, and the two merge. What starts online often moves offline, and vice versa. For example, intimate images shared without consent is a growing form of VAWG.

Advances in communication technology and the emergence of new digital platforms make it more difficult to proactively tackle VAWG. Of increasing concern are the so-called “influencers” and the group of men referred to as “incels” (involuntary celibates) who now populate parts of the internet, sharing misogynistic attitudes about women, and advice on how to manipulate, coerce, exploit, abuse, and take violent action against women. As a consequence of this women and girls do not have access to their right to free speech as they are forced to change their behaviour, self-censor or remove themselves from the platform altogether because of harmful content and their concerns not being adequately addressed.


Email: ceu@gov.scot

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