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March 12, 2009

Joe Biden Feminism Watch: VAWA in the UK?

There's a new study out that shows some pretty disturbing attitudes towards rape and domestic violence among people in the UK. (The survey covers England and Wales only.) Between 10 and 20% of the people surveyed believe that it's sometimes acceptable for a man to hit his wife or girlfriend if she does something to upset him, including things like flirting with other men, nagging, or dressing sexy in public. Similar numbers believe that if a woman is dressed provocatively while out in public, she is partly responsible if she's raped or sexually assaulted. There's more info and analysis of the numbers at The F Word, a great UK feminist blog.

Reading about this study reminded me of a piece that I read on the Guardian's Comment is free site before the election which suggested that maybe the UK could take some lessons from Joe Biden and the Violence Against Women Act. It never made it into the Biden Feminism Watch at the time, but I think it's still relevant now that the Obama/Biden team is actually in office. Here's my slightly trimmed down version, but the full piece is still up at Comment is free:

The government could learn a thing or two about tackling violence against women from the US vice-presidential candidate...For [Joe] Biden is the man who wrote the groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act in 1994 that was renewed – and strengthened – in 2000 and 2005.

The Vawa has led to programmes, laws and initiatives including a national domestic violence hotline, improved criminal justice responses, better legal access for poor and immigrant women, prevention programmes and – critically - funding for support services such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres. Administered by the Department of Justice, more than $5bn has been awarded to governments and community-based responses under the Vawa. It's no wonder that Biden says he considers the act the "single most significant legislation that I've crafted during my 35-year tenure in the Senate".

In America, the Vawa represents a concerted national effort to tackle gender-based violence. Closer to home, the Scottish government has also been addressing violence against women more strategically and a national violence-against-women fund has led to the expansion of Rape Crisis Centres. In contrast, there is a fractured, criminal justice-driven approach in the rest of the UK that has resulted in a funding crisis for women's support services. The Rape Crisis sector south of the border is being decimated as one group after another closes because of funding cuts.

There are now just 38 affiliated Rape Crisis Centres left in England and Wales – half the number there were in the 1980s – and no funded centres in Northern Ireland at all – meaning that most rape victims do not have access to the specialist support they deserve. A one-off injection from the government of £1m to shore up centres facing immediate closure is welcome but not a long-term solution. In fact, one-in-three local authorities across the UK do not have domestic violence shelters or other specialist services at all as was graphically demonstrated by End Violence Against Women and the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year in our Map of Gaps report.

Nevertheless, ministers are digging their heels in by maintaining that funding for life-saving services is not possible at a national level, rather it is the responsibility of local authorities. Unfortunately, as a result of local commissioning processes, local authorities are increasingly turning to larger, generic services such as housing providers or faith organisations which are cheaper than women's organisations but do not have the expertise on gender-based violence that's been developed over decades in the women's sector...

...So you could say it's all a bit of a mess. Meanwhile in America there is the prospect of a vice-president who believes that national funding of violence against women services is one of the biggest achievements of his political career. Ministers here could take a leaf out of senator Biden's book.

Obviously this isn't to say that politicians in the UK are going to immediately get going on their own version of VAWA just because Obama and Biden won the election. But it's worth considering whether a commitment to ending violence against women coming from the highest levels of the Obama administration (which now includes a feminist Secretary of State) could have an influence on the way that officials in other countries address the issue. If nothing else, the existence of VAWA here in the U.S. gives anti-violence activists around the world something to draw from when tackling the issue in their own communities and with their own governments.

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