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.

Why is Violence Against Women and Girls a problem?

VAWG damages health and wellbeing, and limits freedom and potential. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises VAWG as a major public health issue and a fundamental violation of human rights.

The impacts of VAWG are wide-ranging and can have a long-term impact on the lives of those affected, as well as on their families and communities. Women, children, and young people who have experienced violence, abuse and exploitation in Scotland are at increased risk of experiencing inequality of outcomes throughout their lives, including physical and mental health problems, homelessness, drug and alcohol support needs, reduced education and employment opportunities, injuries and even death.

Impacts of VAWG on women

There is strong evidence highlighting the negative effects of VAWG on mental health and wellbeing. Victimisation is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems, including suicidal ideation and suicide.[27] 53% of women who have mental health problems have experienced abuse; 36% of women who have faced extensive physical and sexual abuse in both childhood and adulthood have attempted suicide; and 22% have self-harmed.[28] Women engaged in selling and exchanging sex also report experiencing high levels of trauma.[29]

VAWG is one of the most common types of psychological trauma likely to be experienced in Scotland. Although many show remarkable resilience, women, children, and young people without access to the right support at the right time, face increased risk of other types of trauma and adversity throughout all stages of their lives. As a traumatic experience, VAWG may affect women, children, and young people’s relationships with others and create barriers for seeking help and engaging with services due to fears of being judged, blamed, or re-traumatised. Although efforts have been made to improve how the justice system responds to victim/survivors of VAWG, women and children still encounter significant challenges when navigating civil and criminal courts. Research also highlights that perpetrators are able to use these systems to continue their abuse.

“The waiting times were too long that I tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion or self-harmed… I feel let down and failed.”[30]

Women, children, and young people who have experienced violence and abuse may develop coping strategies to address the trauma they have experienced, which may expose them to greater risk. For example, some victim/survivors report using high levels of alcohol and/or drugs as a coping mechanism for their traumatic experiences, and others report self-harming. Many of the women and girls who come into contact with the justice system have also experienced significant trauma, violence, abuse, and victimisation.[31]

Domestic abuse can begin or escalate during pregnancy, and has significant negative health implications for pregnant women and their babies. Domestic abuse doubles the risk of preterm birth and low birthweight. More than 40% of victim/survivors experience mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and emotional detachment which can affect the way a mother bonds with her child.[32] Perpetrators use women’s parenting and bonds with their children as a powerful tool for controlling women. The quality and effectiveness of support systems for women is directly linked to the well-being of children. When we ensure the protection and rights of children, recognising the differences in girls’ and boys’ experiences, it not only safeguards their wellbeing as they grow but also contributes to gender equality from birth into adulthood.

Women are more likely than men to live in poverty, and VAWG sustains this. For example, women experiencing abuse in the home will find it more difficult to leave their abuser if they are living in poverty. Poverty can be a factor in preventing women from accessing support for safety and wellbeing needs. It can also lead to some women becoming involved in CSE, including prostitution, to support themselves and their children. VAWG also creates barriers to employment and other economic resources because of its negative effects on women’s health, wellbeing, earning potential, career progression and financial stability.[33] Financial abuse is used by perpetrators as a way to control women which, in turn, can raise women’s risk of further violence, abuse, and exploitation.[34]

All victims/survivors of VAWG are at greater risk of experiencing negative outcomes as a result of the violence, abuse, exploitation, and trauma they have experienced.

Impact of VAWG on children and young people

Violence against women and girls can have a significant impact on children and young people’s lives, including their health, education, wellbeing and future life chances. This is especially the case for girls and young women. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms that every child has the right to be protected from all forms of violence and abuse, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It is crucial not to misinterpret children’s rights as over-riding women’s rights. Women should be acknowledged as individuals with full human rights rather than merely conduits for children’s rights. Likewise, girls must not be seen as ‘future-women,’ with their right to gender equality being withheld until they are adults. Girls must be protected by the overlap of women’s and children’s rights legislation. Protecting women’s rights not only stands on its own merit but also yields positive outcomes for children. Children and young people are entitled to access services, have their voices heard and to receive the care and assistance to support them to recover physically and emotionally.[35]

Being a victim of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, and growing up in a household where abuse takes place are recognised as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can increase a child’s likelihood of experiencing poor health and other negative outcomes in adulthood.

For example, domestic abuse can have a significant physical, social, and emotional impact on children and young people. Children may exhibit physical symptoms associated with trauma and stress, sustain injuries when defending a parent or sibling if there is physical violence or, at the most extreme, be injured or killed by a perpetrator. They may also experience intense feelings of fear and anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, and face behavioural and developmental challenges. In Scotland, domestic abuse continues to be one of the most common concerns identified at child protection case conferences of children registered on the child protection register. In 2021–2022 domestic abuse accounted for 16% of the total number of concerns recorded at case conferences, and for 46% of all registrations during the year.[36]

While all children and young people can be negatively impacted by VAWG, the gendered nature of VAWG means that girls and young women are particularly affected. For example, several Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs) across Scotland are seeing an increase in the number of young women being referred because of high risk of harm within their intimate relationships. A report from Girl Guiding UK found that girls often don’t feel safe outside, at school, nor online. Girls reported hearing toxic comments from boys that made them feel uncomfortable or scared, and that they had experienced threatening or upsetting behaviour online.[37] Girls’ experiences of sexual violence can have a significant impact on their mental health and prevent them from accessing education and other opportunities.

“I hope that girls and women will be allowed to feel safe on streets alone.”[38]

Research shows that girls are particularly vulnerable to FGM between birth and 15. In 2022, 29% of cases of forced marriage involved a young person under 17; 78% of cases involved girls/women, while 19% of cases involved people with capacity concerns.[39]

Ensuring that early identification and trauma-informed support are in place to respond to children and young people affected by VAWG is key to ensuring they flourish and are supported to achieve their full potential. This must be done in co-operation and collaboration with relevant partner agencies.

Impact of VAWG on men and boys

VAWG harms everyone in society, including men and boys. While men and boys may benefit from some of the gendered norms and inequalities that give rise to VAWG, they are also harmed by them.[40]

Gender norms place expectations on men and boys to meet unhealthy and impossible standards of masculinity, and these expectations are linked to their experiences of mental health problems, and in particular men’s disproportionate suicide rates, drug-related deaths, and violence from other men. They can lead to men and boys becoming consumers of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE), impacting on their sexual wellbeing, perceptions of relationships, fostering a culture of entitlement, and perpetuating harmful power dynamics as this becomes a normalised part of masculinity.

While men are at lower risk of experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of GBV than women, and are far more likely to perpetrate it, there are men across Scotland who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and exploitation. Gender stereotypes around “masculinity” may prevent these men from recognising that they have experienced such abuse, and stop them from seeking support for the harm that this abuse has caused.

A gendered approach is therefore required to ensure systems understand the differing needs of men and boys as victims, as they may experience abuse in different ways to women and girls, and report different long-term impacts. For example, when men and boys experience domestic abuse, sexual violence, and exploitation, it is primarily at the hands of other men. Gay, bisexual, and trans men and boys may require tailored support services. Research suggests that gay, bisexual, and trans men face significant risk of physical violence, sexual violence, and coercive control within their intimate relationships. It is, therefore, key that their specific needs are considered when designing systems and services for victim/survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The cost of VAWG to society

In addition to the devastating impact that VAWG has on the lives of families and communities across Scotland, it negatively impacts on society as a whole, including placing a significant pressure on public services.

As well as the human costs of failing to tackle VAWG, the financial costs are significant. This includes direct costs relating to women, children, and young people accessing healthcare, criminal justice proceedings, refuge accommodation, and other housing and social care services, and indirect costs related to support with mental health and trauma, drug and alcohol use, welfare support, and loss of economic productivity.

Dealing with the consequences of VAWG places a significant pressure on public services. For example, Police Scotland reports that dealing with incidences of domestic abuse is the greatest single demand on its time, with an average of one incident being reported to it every nine minutes.

Increasingly, public services are identifying that the children and families who come into contact with VAWG services are often the same children and families who come into contact with child protection systems, adult support and protection systems, alcohol and drug support services, housing and homelessness support services, community justice services, and mental health services.

Tackling VAWG will significantly reduce the burden being placed on these services to provide crisis support to women, children, and young people and to redirect resources towards improving outcomes for society as a whole.


Email: ceu@gov.scot

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