International Woman’s Day: Gender Based Violence in Scotland
The University of Strathclyde Law Clinic discuss the main issues facing women in Scotland today and how to best help those in need of legal advice and guidance.
Jennifer Dalziel visited the University on International Woman’s Day to discuss the work she does as Solicitor from the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre and what she feels are the biggest issues facing women in Scotland today.
She explained that from 2009 – 2015, 2 women were killed per week by abusive partners in England and Wales. Similarly, in Scotland, the SWRC predicted that 1 in 4 women will experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. During the discussion, it was highlighted that it is often the most marginalised women who seek help: from refugees, to women of colour, and those who find themselves struggling with the English language. Unfortunately, these women may not be aware of the resources available to them, and this, often paired with the fear of an abusive partner, can restrict the reporting in cases of gender based violence in Scotland.
While the psychology behind coming forward must be understood, it is also vital to raise a public awareness of the issues in the hope that we can better understand the signs of an abusive relationship and, in time, reduce the occurrences of this happening. Organisations such as the Strathclyde Law Clinic aim to provide women in need with knowledge that will better equip them, should they seek legal action. The clinic is free and has drop-in sessions where law students, working solicitors, and academics can provide this much sought-after information.
I spoke with Alice Bowman, who chaired the event, to discuss her personal feelings regarding gender-based violence in Scotland. Alice, who is studying Law at the University of Strathclyde and volunteers at the law clinic, discussed her experiences. She believes it is vital to differentiate and not generalise when it comes to gender-based violence, as other factors must be considered, depending on the case at hand. Bowman asserts: ‘there are millions of women living in Scotland, all of whom have different experiences, lives, and struggles which are affected by factors like age, ethnicity, class, ability, race, gender identity, and sexuality. I would not be able to generalise for all of them.’
Prior to studying Law, Alice worked as a Domestic Abuse Worker for Edinburgh Woman’s Aid, a role she says illuminated the issue of gender-based violence in Scotland to her: “I think it is probably more widespread than people are led to believe. Estimates show that between 20 – 25% of women in Scotland will experience gender-based violence in their lifetime”. Between 2014 – 2016 there were close to 120,000 incidents of domestic abuse recorded to the police, according to the Scottish Government, with almost half of these not leading to recording of a crime or offence. Women are also much more likely to be victims than men, making up 82% of recorded incidents.
It is no surprise that women are predominantly the victims of gender-based violence, but we must consider how many occurrences go unnoticed and unreported. We live in a society where the victim is often blamed, which sets a dangerous precedent for anyone in an abusive relationship, or facing gender-based violence looking for a way out. If we revisit the media frenzy that surrounded former Welsh international footballer Ched Evans’ rape trial in 2012, we can see victim-blaming taken to a stratospheric level. The victim ought to have been protected by laws shielding her identity from the public, allowing for life-long anonymity in the press. Instead, her identity was revealed on social media, leading to her being forced to move homes five time to avoid press attention. This case is particularly troubling based on the celebrity aspect of the alleged rapist – this meant media attention was emphasised, and many of Evans’ fans engaged in a witch-hunt mentality towards the victim. Alice stresses this as a key focus when giving legal advice, ‘I think it’s vital to understand the importance of believing survivors and having a solid understanding of the impact of trauma helps a lot when giving legal advice.’
Victim-blaming should not be tolerated on any level, as what we are presented with in the media only further alienates genuine victims from coming forward. It is already an extremely difficult experience to go through when reporting instances of abuse to the police, without having to doubt whether you are believed. While acknowledging many of the positive steps we are taking in terms of gender-based violence, Alice says: ‘we have a long way to go. Forms of abuse are changing. Due to the internet, social media and instant messaging, forms of abuse such as revenge porn and online harassment are now a big issue.’ We also discussed public perception to gender-based violence and how everyday sexism may impact negatively on tackling the issue appropriately.
‘Unfortunately, victim blaming is common,’ continued Alice. ‘This can be seen through the comments of Lindsay Kushner, a judge in England, who last week said that women should protect themselves from rapists, by not getting drunk, as when drunk, women are more vulnerable to being raped. Comments like this imply that women are to blame for being the victim of sexual violence, when in fact the only person responsible for rape is the rapist. I remember a few years ago a young woman was raped in The Meadows in Edinburgh. I recall speaking to a stranger on the train about it, and they remarked ‘well the question really is, why was she walking around the Meadows at that time of night!?’ as if to say, ‘Well what did she expect?!’ I think that this type of comment is common, and we all have a responsibility to call out victim blaming like this.’
The Scottish Government are attempting to make it easier for victims of gender-based violence to come forward. In 2015, they launched they campaign ‘Equally Safe – Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls.’ The initiative aims to tackle the fundamental aspect of this violence, which is gender inequality, by looking to address systematic ways of inequality with the hope of tackling these at the root. Alice says of these changes: ‘The Police are taking gender based violence seriously, as are the Scottish Government, as can be seen by their ‘Equally Safe’ policy proposals. In the same way, the criminal justice system is trying to improve things, as shown by the recent roll out of specialized domestic abuse courts. I think these changes are being made due to the endless campaigning that organisations like Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis have done over the past few decades.’
Alice also touches upon the misconception that women will ‘fight off’ the person harming them: ‘If they do not fight off the rapist, or immediately tell someone that they have experienced such violence, then it is deemed that they are lying. This is why the recent Rape Crisis public awareness campaign called ‘I Just Froze’ is so important.’
Rape Crisis Scotland’s new campaign video is intent on challenging these misconceptions and gives victims and survivors a voice, and removing any stigma or public perception of how someone should react in that situation. The truth is, no one knows how they would react whether it be them, so they certainly cannot presume what someone else would do in such unimaginable circumstances. ‘The I Just Froze’s’ message is that the trauma of such an event should not prevent victims from coming forward, or seeking any kind of help, as it is normal to feel powerless in such a situation. However, there are support networks in place to help with recovery.
The Strathclyde Law Clinic also seeks to provide a service for anyone looking for legal advice that has potentially faced difficulty attaining it in the past. They offer free advice and representation to assist clients with any legal problems they may have. They also collaborate with different organisations, such as Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, which offers free legal advice for women who have been affected by gender-based violence. These women can also get free representation in cases where someone may not be able to afford a solicitor, or if the legal needs are too complex. The clinic helps to remove much of the intimidation surrounding the complex legal system, which can hopefully encourage more women to seek justice.