Making Scotland equally safe: speech

Angela Constance addresses Parliament on the subject of violence against women and girls.

Presiding officer, violence against women and girls is one of the most devastating and fundamental violations of human rights. It has to stop and we all have to take meaningful action to stop it.

This debate marks the annual 16 days of action to tackle gender based violence across the world. The theme of this year's 16 days is "Leave No One Behind". I take this to mean two things.

Firstly that no woman or girl should endure any form of gender based violence and we need to make sure that we include every part of our society in our efforts to end it.

Secondly, that we all, in this Parliament and in our society, have a responsibility to take action to end violence against women. It's time for everyone to realise we are all collectively responsible for eradicating violence against and women and girls and the underlying attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate it. We must work together and leave no one behind.

I want to be clear at the outset – it is men who must change their behaviour and their choices. Men must join with the many women already taking action in this space to send a very clear message. In every space that men occupy, they must act to support women's equality and stand up to violence, harassment and abuse.

We have all been moved by the stories told through the #metoo [hashtag] on social media, which has prompted thousands of women to disclose that they too have been victims of sexual harassment or assault.

I'd like to pay tribute to, and acknowledge the bravery of those of women, and men, who have raised their hands and said 'me too'. It is not easy. And we cannot forget that there are many more who have not shared their experiences publically. Each individual is entitled to deal with their own experience in their own way.

If #metoo has achieved anything, it is indeed to shine a spotlight on men's violence against women and emphasise that we cannot take our foot off the gas. And it has brought home the reality that no institution is immune from the scourge of sexual harassment.

Tackling violence against women and girls is the role of every individual, every community and every institution of Scotland and the Scottish Government is committed to leading a collective response to doing so.

That's why on Friday we published a delivery plan to deliver practical steps that will take us towards ending this violence for good. The delivery plan sets out 118 actions we intend to take from now to 2021, to ensure we can make progress towards a Scotland where women and children live free from violence and abuse – and the attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate it.

Our work in this area has a deliberate and decisive focus on prevention. That is why over the next period we will run a number of campaigns, including on the new domestic abuse offence, as well as sexual harassment and sexism. Feminist organisations like Scottish Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Engender, Close the Gap and Zero Tolerance rightly challenge us all to do more as well as raise awareness and understanding across society.

Ensuring that our young people have the right attitudes and an understanding of consent is critical for the future. That's why we are expanding the Rape Crisis Scotland Sexual Violence Prevention Programme to all 32 local authorities in Scotland.

On Friday, I was delighted to visit St John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton, which is the first of what will be eight schools over the next few years that we're supporting to develop a holistic approach to tackling gender based violence. It was fantastic to hear directly from students how committed they are to these issues, and I believe that the school will blaze a trail which hopefully many others will follow.

And we must ensure that we build on the work we're doing to give our children and young people the best start in life. That's why the delivery plan has a strong focus on education for young people, improving experience the justice system for children, and strengthening links with our work on child protection. Just recently, I was privileged to meet a group of young people called the 'Everyday Heroes', who have been working closely with us to shape Equally Safe.

Their recommendations for action will be published in early 2018, and I will be responding to them. These are fantastic young people, and I would encourage other members across the chamber to engage with them, their voices should be heard and their views listened to.

We need to harness the power of all our educational facilities, and we must make sure that our further and higher education campuses are free of this violence. I want to take this moment to mention the tragic case of Emily Drouet. Just 18 years old and in her first year at University, she was found dead in her flat in March last year having taken her own life. This serves to remind us that colleges and universities, like every institution and community, have their share of men's violence against women.

So we need to do more - that's why we will work with universities and colleges to support them in using the learning from our 'Equally Safe in Higher Education' project at the University of Strathclyde to ensure the safety of students from gendered violence, and embed better understanding of these issues into their curriculums.

I want to pay tribute to Fiona, Emily's mother, who has campaigned along with the National Union of Students for universities to tackle these issues on campus and provide better support for students.

My colleague the Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Science has offered to meet with Fiona, and I know that she will give careful consideration to the important matters raised by this heartbreaking case.

Raising awareness and embedding understanding are important, but the bigger challenge is delivering a societal shift where women no longer occupy a subordinate position to men.

This Government has a strong track record – a gender balanced Cabinet, the establishment of an Advisory Council on Women and Girls, and the introduction of legislation to lock in the gains on ensuring equality representation on public board are just a few of the important steps we have taken.

This is a matter of human rights enshrined within the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which states that we have a duty to provide women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate in Government and public office, at all levels.

We take our responsibility to uphold these rights seriously, and to do so demands action to ensure that women are properly represented in our political and public institutions and more widely in senior and decision making positions. Of course, we know that in terms of equal representation we're not there yet.

Just less than 35% of members of this Scottish Parliament and 30% of MPs are women. At the current pace of change it will be another 25 years before we reach 50% of women elected members in local government.

So we have a lot more to do. And that's why the delivery plan sets out a series of steps that we believe will help make progress towards advancing women's equality in a range of spaces, whether economic, civic, social and cultural.

We also want women to feel safer in every space that they wish to inhabit and part of that is about holding men to account for their behaviour in real and online spaces. That's why we will work with local community safety partners to link Equally Safe to their work and hold a roundtable with experts to look at what more we can do to tackle the pernicious online abuse and misogyny that women using social media often experience.

Prevention is absolutely vital if we are to reduce and ultimate end violence against women and girls. But we also need to act here and now, to ensure that those experiencing violence and abuse get the help and support they need.

We want to make sure that public services work together effectively to support victims and survivors, and put the rights of victims and survivors at the very heart of their approach. And we recognise the important role local specialist third sector services play which is why we are providing three years funding for those organisations, to enable them to plan for the future.

We are investing significant funding in tackling violence against women and girls. For this year, I have committed nearly £12 million from my own portfolio to support services and tackle the underlying issues that create the conditions for violence.

The £20 million invested by my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Justice over the last three years to strengthen the Justice response to tackling violence against women has been used to good effect to reduce criminal court waiting times; strengthen advocacy support across the country for victims of sexual violence and develop the capacity of perpetrator programmes.

But as I said at the outset, it is men that need to change their behaviour and their choices if we are to end violence against women and girls. And if they do not do so then it is right that they receive a robust response from justice services.

That's why we are strengthening the law in relation to domestic abuse by making coercive and controlling behaviour and a criminal offence to reflect the reality of domestic abuse. We have already passed the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, which modernises the law on domestic and sexual abuse and created a specific offence of sharing private intimate images without consent.

And we also need to make sure that those men who are willing to change their behaviour get the support they need. So we will expand the Caledonian programme to ensure that male offenders can receive those interventions.

To conclude, Presiding Officer, a lot has been done. We are doing important work in this area, and I welcome very much the broad cross-party consensus on this agenda. But there is much, much more to be done and we cannot rest until violence against women and girls is indeed a thing of the past.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women once said "the price of no change is unacceptable" and i am sure we would all concur. That has been thrown into sharp focus by recent events in particular. This Government commits to moving forward and working tirelessly to ensure that every women and girl in Scotland lives free from violence.

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