Since 1981, the UK government has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and with that comes a responsibility to act and to promote legislative changes and service provision that reduces violence against women and girls (VAWG) from society. The first VAWG strategy was published in 2009. 13 years on, what progress has been made?

The answer to that question depends on who is answering it…

Conservative MPs or supporters argue that under successive Conservative-led governments VAWG remains a top policy priority. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was a landmark success, expanding powers to the police and crown prosecution service to better prosecute, investigate and support victims. There has also been considerable investment to improve support services for victims and survivors of abuse.

On the other side of the debate, the women’s sector recognise progress but argue that the government could and should do more to improve rape and sexual harassment prosecutions and establish longer-term funding for specialist support services at the grassroots level.

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In many ways, both positions would be fair in their assessment. However, I question whether our society has progressed in this area. Here are two issues I am deeply concerned by:

1. Violence and abuse towards women and girls seems to be encroaching into all areas of life

An OFSTED 2021 report into sexual abuse within schools found 90 per cent of recorded offences of rape in 2018 – 19 of 13 to 15-year-olds were committed against girls. The report also identified a worrying culture within schools where harmful sexual behaviour has become a part of school life. Young girls are receiving unwanted comments (80 per cent), sexist name-calling is common (92 per cent) and rumours about girls’ sexual activity (81 per cent) frequent conversation in the school playground.

Outside the school gates, women are finding public spaces equally distressing. The UN Women UK YouGov survey in spring last year found 80 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space (defined as hospitality venues, parks, streets, public transport and excluding university, colleges or the workplace).

While no-one can ever guarantee safety, it is concerning that more women and girls are experiencing some form of violence and abuse in ordinary activities like education, online interaction and social outings.

2. Policy alone cannot generate the cultural and societal transformation which is so desperately needed

Government policy can increase public awareness through running billboard and social media campaigns like Enough to violence against women and girls. Government policy can increase penalties for inappropriate and violent behaviours and provide funding for support services.

But there are limits to what policy can realistically achieve.

This point isn’t to absolve this government or future governments of their responsibility to reduce violence and abuse against women and girls across society. Rather it is a rallying cry to Christians to realise cultural and social transformation is something we the church specialise in.

The apostle Paul in Romans 1 described the gospel as the power of God to bring salvation to everyone”. Salvation is about individuals being reconciled to their heavenly Father but its outworkings include restoring right relationships, community and justice with others, where love, respect and honour are gifted to one other.

Policy cannot change the human heart, only the gospel can.

As you consider the government’s strategy to tackle violence and abuse against women and girls, my challenge to evangelicals is to encourage you to consider, what more can you as an individual and as a church be doing on this issue? Could you:

  • set up a teaching series for young adults in your church or community to talk openly and honestly about sexual culture and its impact on identity and the ability to cultivate romantic and platonic relationships;
  • establish a mentoring scheme for local schools in your area;
  • inspire your church leaders to set up a fund to support families and/​or women with experience of abuse to access counselling services; or
  • partner with a Christian charity that specialises in tackling violence and abuse and together advocate for local changes in your community?

The government’s current VAWG strategy

This a rallying cry to the church to realise cultural and social transformation is something we specialise in.

This strategy was first published in July 2021 and updated in November 2021. It requires government departments to work together with the NHS, statutory authorities, police and crime commissioners and local authorities.

The four objectives in the report are: 1) to prioritise prevention, 2) support victims, 3) pursue perpetrators and 4) strengthen the system. For the purpose of this article, I will provide a headline summary for objectives 1 – 3, but you are welcome to read the strategy in full by visiting gov​.uk.

Prioritising prevention

The government rightly recognises the prevalence of VAWG, and therefore this objective is about seeking to address the attitudes and behaviours that underpin crimes of violence.” Their action points include:

  • working to revise school curriculums around relationships, sex and health education.
  • giving £23.5 million to police and local authorities in England and Wales and piloting an app in order to make public spaces safer.

Supporting victims

The government has pledged £300 million in the coming year to support victims and survivors of abuse. £27 million of this is going towards recruiting more Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs) and Independent Domestic Abuse Advisers. Both roles provide specialist support to victims of violence and abuse through advocacy, advice and signposting families and individuals to local counselling services.

Pursuing perpetrators

Parliamentary inquiries have produced reports and findings highlighting new types of abuse and violent behaviour. In response, the government have prioritised strengthening sentencing guidelines and increasing powers for criminal justice agencies to bring perpetrators to justice.

The Domestic Abuse Act came into law last year. The act:

  • creates a legal duty on local authorities to provide safe accommodation for victims and children, 
  • prevents preparators from cross examining victims in family court room. 
  • creates domestic abuse protection orders to prevent perpetrators contacting the victims. 

The rise in online sexual violence and abuse led the government to publish a draft Online Safety Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny last year. The primary objective of such a bill is to protect children and young people from grooming, child sexual exploitation and accessing explicit sexual content online. Evangelical Alliance member organisation CARE has engaged on this policy issue and have produced briefings and resources for parents and individuals to better understand the complexities in this bill and briefings to share with elected representatives.

Evangelicals have a role to play

Strengthening discipleship, mission activities in the community and advocating for policy change at local and national levels are key to Christians becoming advocates for women and girls in our society. As the church continues to model kingdom living in a secularised society, opportunities will arise where churches are seen as part of the solution in tackling violence and abuse against women and girls.

Next week’s article further explores the role Christians can play in advocating for women and girls.

Violence against women and girls (VAWG): explore the series

This article is part of a six-part series on challenging violence against women and girls. Click through to further articles in the series below:

VAWG series: Christians have a role to play

VAWG series: Christians have a role to play

Part two: biblical guiding principles to inform how we the church live out our faith in the public square as we speak out on violence against women and girls
VAWG series: Radical relationships

VAWG series: Radical relationships

Part three: As disciples of Jesus, are our relationships with others, family, platonic and professional, modelled on Christ’s humility and meekness?