The Home Office has this week published an updated version of the Government’s Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy. The VAWG action plan was first introduced in 2016 and this week’s refresher outlines 54 key measures the Government plans to implement to support those women and girls affected by violence.
On this International Women’s Day 2019, it is a good opportunity to look at what has been achieved since the VAWG strategy’s inception, and what can still be done to prevent such crimes happening, support victims and seek justice for offenders.
To combat violent crime, abuse needs to stop before it starts. One way to deal with this is through the legal framework we live by, and the Government has made steps legislatively in recent years to tackle perpetrators. Most recently, the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill 2019 has received Royal Assent to make ‘upskirting’ a criminal offence from April 2019. As well as consulting on and progressing measures for the introduction of a new Stalking Protection Order, the Government also published a Draft Domestic Abuse Bill on 21 January 2019 which would see the launch of new domestic abuse preventative order regimes. Despite some criticism that the Bills do not go far enough to cover holistic approached programmes for offenders and tough sentences for those who do not sustain court orders, there is no doubt that these Bills are ambitious first steps in the right direction to confront these issues.
The Government has shown its increased support in dealing with the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) across the UK. FGM is a form of violence against women and girls that still affects an estimated 100 people every year. The Government has rolled out resources and is investing £4 million into delivering national training and prevention programmes for healthcare professionals and the public on the topic. This issue was also highlighted in the courts in February 2019, when the mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person in UK to be found guilty of FGM offences since the practice was criminalised in the UK in 1985. The extent of the seriousness of this offence has been reflected today in her sentence of 11 years. These trends show the Government’s commitment to invest more to raise awareness and to support victims of the practice.
Looking at the year ahead, the Government has announced a number of proposals to target violence against women and girls, some more ambitious than others. Amongst the most salient of these is the taking of steps to crack down on the unsolicited sending of penis photos, or ‘cyber-flashing’, over the internet. Over recent years, the practice of cyber-flashing has become commonplace, with 41% of 18 to 36 year olds having received images without requesting them. This has given rise to a lacuna in the law in terms of protection for those who are victimised by the behaviour. Whilst there are provisions that might capture the behaviour, such as section 66 of the Sexual offences Act 2003, or section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the fact that no provision precisely criminalises the behaviour means both that it would be harder to prosecute successfully and that, therefore, the police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would be less likely to press ahead with a cyber-flashing case.
On this basis, MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee have called for the creation of a specific law criminalising “all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images.” The Government has responded with the rather nebulous commitment to “explore [the] issues” and consider “whether there is more we can do to address this.” Reports suggest that 73% of women have been exposed to some form of online violence, and that women are 27 times more likely to be abused online than men. Clearly, then, ‘exploring’ the issues is not good enough: it is time for concrete steps to be taken to reduce online abuse of women and girls.
The previous year has seen important legislative changes take place, and investments being made in crucial areas to attempt to reduce violence against women and girls. It remains to be seen how effective new legislation will be, but there is nevertheless cause to be cheerful. The Government has made inroads into criminalising specific and new types of sexual offences with its work on ‘upskirting’, and it is to be hoped that this progress will be continued in respect of cyber-flashing over the coming year.
This blog was written by Dorian Robinson and Helen Scambler in our Criminal Litigation team.
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #BalanceforBetter.