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Some public policy issues attract lots of attention, see lots of publishing and special events held to debate them, get political party activists and ‘wonks’ excited – win-win environmental fixes, clever simplification of tax, better managed healthcare. Those of us working in policy and politics are attracted by the very idea of finding innovative solutions to problems and making people’s lives better.

But there are other issues we face which perhaps are not so glamorous, which make many people want to bury their heads in the sand, and which even provoke denial as to whether any public policy solution can ever be found.

Since the revelations about Jimmy Savile emerged last Autumn there has been a deluge of reports to police and other agencies about sexual abuse suffered in childhood. We are also now becoming sadly familiar with the vicious behaviour of gangs of men who sexually exploit vulnerable girls like those in Rochdale and Oxford. The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer has talked about the “watershed moment” we are in for both understanding the nature of sexual abuse, the methods used by those who perpetrate it and why victims are often so reluctant to report it.

At the same time we have woefully high rates of sexual and domestic violence in the UK – more than two women are killed every week by a partner or former partner, and there are an estimated 85,000 rapes each year.

There has been a tendency to look at all this abuse as somehow inevitable. Monstrous and vile yes, but ultimately unpreventable, the product of a small criminal minority. And frankly, the fact that the victims are among the more vulnerable in society has also contributed to a lack of political attention to the issue, a perceived small number of vulnerable women and girls. How can political manifestos possibly tackle such abuse?

In fact – when you are willing to get round the table, hold the meetings and the policy events, get the experts who research violence against women and girls and those who work on the frontline in Refuges and Rape Crisis Centres, there are solutions.

And what experts say again and again is – we need to start in schools. We need work throughout school to tackle attitudes that condone abuse before they set in. Young people today are bombarded with confusing and conflicting sexual imagery and ideas about men’s and women’s roles, from music videos and to TV drama storylines, and there is ample evidence about their widespread access to online pornography. Experts recommend that schools train teachers to spot the signs of abuse, have policies on tackling sexual harassment and bullying (don’t let the casual groping and sexual name-calling that girls report as routine go), and ensure that sex and relationships education is part of the curriculum.

This Government is to be praised for its adoption early on of an action plan to end violence against women and girls. Lead by Theresa May MP this plan instituted a more strategic approach to tackling abuse in all its forms – domestic and sexual violence, trafficking, forced marriage, FGM and more. It also includes a commitment to prevent as well as tackle abuse after it happens. A new report published today assesses this specific commitment to prevent and finds that while there is excellent ongoing work, including the Home Office thisisABUSE teen abuse prevention campaign, the work overall is patchy and urgently needs more political leadership. An accompanying poll shows that the public is hugely supportive of compulsory sex and relationships education as a key method of preventing abuse. The Government is not currently minded to institute this. We urgently need more policy debate about the role of schools in preventing future abuse of women and girls.

In media policy – David Cameron has commissioned work from the heart of Number 10 on the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood which has produced some strong recommendations on control of violent video games and possibly also a re-examination of the regulation of music videos. But we are also almost two years into a national debate about the ethics and behaviour of our national press and the portrayal of women and girls in our newspapers is not featuring here. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition for the end of Page 3. Again, we urgently need policy debate about the effects of media policy on women and girls.

The EVAW Coalition looks forward to further meetings soon with those across the political spectrum who want to look at what policy would actually prevent abuse. And we continue to urge all our political leaders to gear up on prevention of abuse before it happens.

Sarah Green is Campaigns Manager of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

Follow Sarah on Twitter.


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