Guest blog post by Talat Yaqoob

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This blog post by Talat Yaqoob (Women 50:50) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Talat Yaqoob is the co-founder and Chair of the Women 50:50 campaign, which is fighting for legislated candidate quotas in local council and Scottish Parliament election and works to ensure the diversity of women is truly represented across politics.

The past few months have been a turbulent time for politics across the UK, not in the usual sense of infighting and constitutional nightmares, but instead some temporary focus managed to be on women and their experiences.

In October of this year, Holyrood and Westminster were rocked by sexual harassment claims, but women who have been working in political parties, in parliaments or in councils were not “rocked” by this news, most nodded knowingly, having experienced the casual sexism and in many cases the direct harassment that has come to light. Our parliament or councils do not exist in isolation from the rest of society, where there is patriarchy preventing social justice for women; there too are forces of patriarchy in our democracy. The inequality is clearest in who is represented; only 35% of MSPs are women (down from 40% in 2007), there are only 29% women councillors and there are 103 wards with no representation from women whatsoever.

A very specific point needs to be made, and loudly, about the intersection of race and gender in our democracy; since the day of devolution there has never been a black or minority ethnic (BME) woman in the Scottish Parliament and across the councils in the 2017 local elections, we went from 4 BME woman councillors to 3. This is despite a focus on gender equality and outreach from political parties, which should lead us to ask; which women are they targeting their outreach too? Aside from it clearly not having enough impact overall, it would seem what little is being done is targeted at those who are easiest to find and are already closest to participation.

Inside the Scottish Parliament, its Corporate Body has 1 woman and 5 men and its Business Bureau is all male. Combined, these groups govern over the programme of parliamentary business, HR, equality and diversity and staff/MSP conduct – until last month, both of these groups were all male, however a resignation led to one of the male members of the corporate body resigning and recommending a woman take his place. That was certainly a welcome move, but the fact that these groups were all male, should have bothered those in the parliament long before these sexual harassment cases came to be known.

Why am I talking about representation during the 16 days of activism on violence against women? Because political under-representation is part of the continuum of inequality that allows violence against women to persist in our society. Women missing from decision making means poorer, less well informed decisions are made, often hurting women the most. Women missing from our politics and leadership feeds the perceptions that they are less capable of or less well suited to these roles and drives deeper the stereotypes that inhibit women’s ambitions and opportunities.

It is a Westminster parliament, with only 29% women MSPs, that passed universal credit, the family cap, the rape clause and austerity measures which disproportionality impact women (and women of colour, refugee women and disabled women the most). Yes, there is a woman Prime Minister leading the charge on these decisions, I do not expect that every woman elected will be a feminist or should be the voice for all women, but I do firmly believe that institutions which have (and have always had) a majority of men making decisions, create systems which benefit those like them. This has been proved in every avenue of society. More women around the decision making table, with diverse lived experience, from across political thinking makes for better systems and better outcomes.

The continuum of inequality, of which under-representation is just one part, can be vividly seen in how our women parliamentarians are treated. Once women have got through the sexism they face within their parties, have earned their stripes and run for selection, have managed to deal with the questions asked of their capabilities, their “work/life balance” (which we simply do not ask of men), make it on to the ballot paper in a winnable seat and make it into council or parliament, what awaits them is unacceptable.

The way women are represented in traditional media needs to be challenged and overcome. We have seen the First Minister photo-shopped onto a bikini wearing Miley Cyrus and more recently, the Daily Mail went with a front page headline “Never Mind Brexit, who won legs-it?” commenting on Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s bodies. Forget that they were meeting to discuss the most critical issue in the UK today, how did their legs look? Such commentary and imagery only feeds the idea that women are there to be objectified and even as leaders, are not to be taken seriously.

But it is not restricted to our papers. The way they are treated by the public on social media is horrifying, Amnesty UK conducted research on the treatment of women MPs on social media platforms such as Twitter and found that women were more likely to be subjected to abuse and whilst all MPs suffer unacceptable abuse online, women experienced specifically gendered, misogynistic abuse. Of the tweets they investigated, 41% of abuse was targeted at BME women representative despite there being eight times as many white MPs (Diane Abbot taking the brunt of these attacks, with almost a third of the abuse directed solely at her.). This is violence and it must be tackled. We need to work on the structural barriers within political parties which exclude women’s participation through quota mechanisms and equally, we need to genuinely challenge misogynistic attitudes and make such views socially unacceptable to all, not just those of us working in equality and diversity.

All of the above is part of that continuum of inequality, where we silently condone one aspect, we normalise the next, and the next, until violence against women becomes the epidemic it is today. The Women 50:50 campaign is working on one aspect of women’s inequality, but we recognise the multiple and layered inequality women face. That is why we are proud to work with and champion women’s organisations across Scotland who work on policy making, the labour market, BME women’s participation and violence against women.

Scotland needs to take bold action on every aspect of this continuum and at the same time, from women’s political participation to their experiences of sexual or domestic violence – because no woman’s life exists in silos.


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Safe at Home, Safe at Work

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This blog post by Ann Henderson is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The publication of the European TUC Report Safe at home, safe at work: Trade unions’ strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate work-place harassment and violence against women’ in June this year marked a significant contribution to bringing about effective change in workplaces and in our communities, recognising the key role for trade unions and their responsibilities at local and national level, including through collective bargaining and workplace agreements.

The Report is extensive, having collected evidence from 11 countries, including the UK. Both the TUC and the STUC contributed to the case studies. It has been presented to the European Commission, and work continues on implementing its recommendations.

It contains many examples of good practice, and further establishes clarity between the different practical and policy responses to sexual harassment in the workplace as distinct from supporting those experiencing domestic abuse and how that impacts the workplace too.

Establishing a workplace culture that does not tolerate bullying or harassment is central to the Fair Work agenda, to which Scottish Government, the STUC, and employers signed up, in March 2016, endorsing the Fair Work Framework.

‘Fair Work’ is defined through five dimensions: effective voice, opportunity, fulfilment, security and respect. The Framework identifies trade unions as contributing to all these objectives, and recognises that collective organisation gives more effective voice to the needs and concerns of individual workers. In the context of tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, we envisage a key role for trade unions, and there is an opportunity here for the Fair Work Convention to examine some of the recommendations of the ETUC Report, and consider how their implementation could assist in Scotland with delivering on the Fair Work Framework.

The TUC ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter’ report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 2016, produced in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism project found that for many women sexual harassment was not a one-off incident, but something that had happened many times throughout their working lives. Of all those polled, over half had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The TUC Report also made a number of useful recommendations, including the reintroduction of third party harassment legislation; recognition and facility time for trade union equality reps; and to extend full range of employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract. Employers are encouraged to provide decent jobs, good training, and clear policies with effective enforcement – and trade unions are also encouraged to provide training, to run workplace campaigns, and to lead on negotiating workplace polices. Effective enforcement of health and safety legislation and using the statutory powers of health and safety reps can make a big difference in workplace culture and environment.

With such a wealth of resources, and the recognition by the Scottish Government of the role of trade unions and the recognition of the benefits of collective bargaining, it is concerning to find that the Scottish Government recently published the Delivery Plan for ‘Equally Safe, Scotland’s Strategy to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls’ with absolutely no mention of trade unions, equality reps, workplace representation, or collective bargaining and trade union agreements. There is virtually no crossover with the Fair Work Framework, despite the fact that trade unions are represented on both the Equally Safe Strategic Board and on the Fair Work Convention.  The proposed pilot accreditation programme for employers gives no recognition to the extensive work already carried out through the trade union movement, nor the role that union reps can play in securing clear workplace agreements, rather than simply ‘urging’ or ‘encouraging’ good practice.

The ETUC Report also makes a distinction between tackling domestic violence and its impact in the workplace, developing good policies to support those employees experiencing domestic violence, and the strategies needed to ensure workplaces are free from sexual harassment and bullying.  In Scotland, a working group at COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) included the four key public sector unions, the GMB, UNITE, UNISON, and the EIS, has been developing guidance on domestic abuse policies in local government workplaces. Hopefully this is being taken forward, although it is not referenced in the Equally Safe Delivery Plan.

In 1998, in a paper published for the Scottish Office Central Research Unit, Dr Sheila Henderson of Reid Howie Associates, brings together the summaries of four separate reports on the lived experience of, and policies to tackle, domestic violence. Moving towards the common understanding which shaped the first Scottish Government strategy, after the Scottish Parliament was established, the Report clearly states ‘Domestic violence occurs in all social groups, and is not caused by stress, unemployment, poverty or mental illness, nor by the women who experience the abuse’. The first Labour/ Liberal Democrat Scottish Government allocated significant increases in funding to Women’s Aid and projects supporting women and children, and set a different tone for all our work.

Holding on to that understanding of the nature of domestic violence is important, and can also frame our understanding of the way in which the abuse of power manifests itself through sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace and in our communities. Whether a woman works as a cleaner, admin worker, engineer or astronaut, sexual harassment in the workplace and in the wider community is unacceptable. Trade unions can play a vital part in developing a culture, and creating safe and healthy workplaces for all. Domestic violence does not distinguish between women by their occupation or income either, and our strategies must meet the needs of all women.  For example, if there is no serious investment in public sector housing, directly under the control of local councils and communities, then the options for women to find alternatives to living with domestic violence which are secure for themselves and any children are removed for all women, regardless of occupation.

In fact, one of the biggest problems for women who are dealing with domestic violence, is to recognise the support needed to remain in employment, and not be faced with losing a job through irregular attendance, workplace harassment, or unauthorised leave. Trade unions and clear collective bargaining and representation can ensure agreements are reached on periods of unpaid leave, support in transferring to another location if appropriate, and other measures which recognise this situation is not the woman’s fault. The ETUC study contains some excellent examples from other European countries.

In Slovenia, a workplace policy on sexual harassment and bullying has been signed between Mercator, a supermarket chain with over 10,000 employees, and the trade union ZSSS (commerce sector). This makes clear there will be no tolerance of such behaviour; identifies a dedicated staff team and helpline; and the trade unions report an 80% resolution rate on cases raised so far. A significant proportion of those cases raised, involved bullying and harassment from management team members, and the agreement between the employer and the union was vital in providing a route for dealing with the issues.

Unions in Bulgaria flagged up the vulnerability of all casual and migrant labour, highlighting the problems of low pay, poor working conditions, and psychological violence and harassment in the garment sector, with a mainly female workforce.

The importance of the law as an enabler for then progressing workplace agreements is illustrated in several country case studies. In Spain, countrywide legislation Organic Law 3/2007 on gender equality paved the way for unions to conclude agreements at company level through equality plans which include the prevention of sexual and gender based harassment.

In the UK, USDAW the shopworkers union has developed a ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, focussing in particular on safe travel to and from work, and improving lighting and security on entering and leaving premises. Representing workers in the retail sector, mainly women, USDAW also has taken up the issue of third party harassment, despite the removal of this provision from the Equality Act 2010 by the Conservatives government. Shop owners have responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for their staff.

For over 15 years, UNISON has been promoting workplace policies on domestic violence, following on from an effective ‘Raise the Roof’ report. A guide published in 2016 gives information  and raises awareness for to union reps about the causes and effects of domestic violence, gives information on signs which may indicate domestic violence is an underlying issue, and states that employers have a duty of care to their employees. Alongside this, a leaflet is available to all employees about how to seek help if experiencing domestic abuse.

The TUC’s Occupational Safety and Health Working group published a ‘Gender Sensitivity Checklist’ to assist Health and Safety Reps in raising issues with the employer, which includes checking ‘Does the employer recognise that domestic violence can become an issue at the workplace and treat the matter as a safety, health and welfare issue which needs to be dealt with sympathetically and practically? ‘

Tackling violence against women and girls is indeed everyone’s responsibility, and trade unions have a big part to play. Let’s recognise that, and draw on the work developed so far. Collective voice can speak louder than that of individuals, and set out boundaries and agreements in workplaces which will make a significant difference to women’s lives, both at home and at work.


Ann Henderson





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The Right to Recover [re-blog]

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This blog post was originally published on Rape Crisis Scotland blog here on 17 November 2017. It is being reproduced here with permission from Rape Crisis Scotland as part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Today in the Scottish Parliament a special event is being held to highlight the publication of a new NSPCC report which reveals a dearth of specialist services across the country for children who have experienced sexual violence.

The new report: ‘The Right to Recover’ covers the West of Scotland from the Western Isles down to Dumfries & Galloway, and the NSPPC has found that more than half of the 17 councils it looked at in West and Central Scotland have no specialist service for children of primary school age who need help, while 15 of the 17 have no service for children aged under five years.

Figures released by the Scottish Government in September showed very clearly that an increasing number of reported sexual crime in Scotland relates to children & young people, and highlighted in particular the high prevalence of sexual crime being experienced by young women under the age of 16. And where there is sexual crime, there are survivors in need of support, advocacy and information – what is equally clear is that all children & young people have a right to and an increasing number badly need access to specialist services following sexual violence.

Rape Crisis centres are seeing an increasing number of young people coming to them and looking for support and information around sexual violence, and more centres have set up specialist services to meet this need – Dundee and Angus Young Survivors (DAYS) for young people aged 11-18, which was recently established by the Women’s Rape & Sexual Abuse Centre in Dundee is the most recent to have done so, after consultation with young people.

Peer and other support available to young survivors from services like DAYS, and the ROSEY Project in Glasgow, offer an invaluable lifeline, and the friendships that develop in these contexts a vital part of this process. Here are some of the comments made by young service users:

“I met wonderfully ordinary people who were connected by similarly awful experiences and I owe where I am to all those involved”

“Support from the centre has shown me that what I feel and how I feel it is both normal and justified, without the support I would still be lost”

“Support has helped me get rid of some of the shame I carry with me”

“I felt totally helpless and didn’t know what to do for my daughter. Knowing she was attending the centre and seeing how much it helped her has been so valuable”

“The support I received following childhood sexual abuse has changed my life, I’m happier then I ever thought I could be”

Rape Crisis Scotland’s Sexual Violence Prevention Project works with young people on issues of consent and healthy sexual relationships, and currently reaches 13,000 young people across Scotland. One of the knock-on effects of this is that increasing numbers of young people are coming forward for support – and ethically, this is something to which they are absolutely entitled: children & young people must have access to specialist, locally based support around sexual violence.

In addition to these are the many adult survivors seeking support from Rape Crisis Centres who were abused as children. Child sexual abuse accounted for almost a quarter of the experiences for which people attended rape crisis centres in Scotland during the past year.

The current work around forensic provision in Scotland includes looking at the learning from the Barnahus model in Iceland; at what child-centred care post sexual assault can and should look like. It is vital that support looks not only at the acute aftermath of assault but the longer term support and advocacy for young people, and their parents/carers.

It is clear from all of this that a solution must be found. Rape Crisis Scotland is keen to be part of that solution, whether this means working in partnership with other agencies towards the development of new and distinct services for children and young people, expansion of existing rape crisis services (with appropriate resourcing) to meet this need, or some other model of provision/

Whatever the answer is, what does remain clear is that the need for children and young people to receive specialist support around sexual violence is pressing, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

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Southern perspectives on domestic violence: Contesting universalisations and reconceptualising social and lived realities of migrant women experiencing multiple marginalisation

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This blog post by Dr. Anuj Kapilashrami (University of Edinburgh Global Public Health Unit & Global Development Academy) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

About the author:

Anuj Kapilashrami is a lecturer in global health policy at the University of Edinburgh. She has an interdisciplinary background and works at the intersections of gender and health politics and development praxis, with particular interest in their interface with human rights and social justice. She has worked with various development actors and social movements in India, the UK and Europe in varying capacity as feminist researcher, academic, and policy analyst. She currently chairs Gender Rights & Development network and convenes Scottish People’s Health Movement.

This piece draws on her ongoing research on intersectional analytics of violence among migrant women, and recent writings on political economy of violence in conflict settings.  


This year’s theme for uniting efforts under 16 days of activism to end gender based violence – Leave no one behind – is an opportunity for deeper reflection on critical gaps in our understandings and responses to gender violence. It calls for raising critical questions on who are ‘left behind’ or excluded from ongoing efforts and policy responses, and how an inclusive agenda for gender violence can be developed. In this blog, I reflect on these gaps in relation to policy responses to domestic violence and their implications for migrant women and girls.

 Acknowledgement of violence occurring in the ‘domestic’ or ‘private’ sphere dates to the ‘second wave’ of feminist struggle and activism associated with ending the social and sexual control of women by men. However, its recognition as an utmost public health and development priority and a human rights concern is relatively new, bolstered by recent endorsement of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Limitations in mainstream discourse

Growing attention aside, mainstream literature and policy debates on domestic violence (more commonly referred to as ‘intimate partner violence’) conceptualise it as a universal phenomenon affecting all societies. These perspectives reflect a unified understanding of relationships as ‘intimate’, context as ‘nuclear household’ or that of ‘stable’ political economies. Such framing overlooks the complex nature of family in non-western societies, specificities (of culture and political economy) in patterns of abuse and help-seeking practices, and deep-rooted patriarchal norms and institutions within which such practices are embedded. Informed by these perspectives, policy and institutional responses to DV tend to focus primarily on presence of laws, availability of legal aid and counsel services, and processes of adjudication. Embedded in a functionalist and distributive paradigm, such focus on distribution presumes that availability of these material goods/ resources will translate into their uptake by those most in need. This paradigm is restrictive in scope as it fails to bring “societal structures and institutional contexts under evaluation”[i]. It also renders dimensions of diversity and structural inequalities invisible by ignoring unequal distribution of and access to both material and non-material goods such as opportunities for development, citizenship among others[ii].

Political conflicts and resulting forced migration have created significant risks for women, as new forms of gendered violence emerge and existing patterns get amplified and intensified for populations moving across borders and socio-economic contexts[iii]. It has also been argued that trans-border movements, while increasing risk of violence, also create spaces for women to highlight violence and gender inequalities hitherto overlooked given the focus on political violence and stability.iii However, there is dearth of analysis on how responsive policies and institutions in countries are to specific positionality, lived realities and needs of migrant women experiencing family abuse.

 Complexities & lived realities of ‘domestic’ abuse among migrant women

In many societies, domestic violence is portrayed as a private issue, shaped by unquestioned belief around men’s ‘rightful’ control over women’s sexuality within a marriage. Reporting any act of violence in this context is viewed as “betrayal of family and violation of social cohesion”.iii In the context of political or religious conflicts and social uprisings, this culture of shame and silence has assumed an altogether different proportion. Here, women’s silent coping with domestic violence gets perceived as an act of ‘national resistance’ or resisting further vilification of already vilified communities (ibid).

Furthermore, in southern contexts, violence takes place within an explicit patriarchal familial, social and cultural context. Feminist scholars have helpfully reminded us that there are “many forms of families; inhabiting varied contexts and subject to different pressures”[iv]. Patriarchal structures of family and ideological formations within these are continually re-constituting and manifest differently in shifting contexts. Among South Asian migrant diaspora populations for example, women are subjected to ‘coercive control’[v] from not only the spouse but also members of the extended family, especially female kin such as the mother-in-law[vi]. While older women in these families are subject to the authority of men, they are also delegated authority over younger daughters-in-law to ensure conformity to patriarchal social norms. Besides physical abuse by partner, young women in these settings are often subjected to everyday form of abuse exercised in domains of the economic, social and political (freedom of movement and other liberties).

These micro experiences within families and households are mediated by macro factors such as border security regimes, policy and institutional provisions at the state level. Research has revealed how ‘harmful immigration policies’ and women’s immigration status creates new forms of coercion and control, such as threats of deportation, denial of asylum or separation from families[vii],[viii]. In the context of tightening border security regimes, irregular / undocumented migrants (in both transit or destination countries) have limited access to justice as they not only fear deportation but further violence from state authorities.

Thus, women’s experience of abuse in families must be understood not by virtue of their gender alone but by their position at the intersections of ethnicity, immigration status, migration journeys, class, sexual identity and their specific socio-cultural context. These structural and institutional factors determine women’s access to resources such as financial support, recourse to legal and justice systems that ultimately shape women’s choices and actions within abusive relationships including whether and how to report or ‘exit’. Disregarding these can severely limit the ability of mainstream interventions in reaching those in need. Studies in the field of violence show that VAW is not only a matter of gendered power relationships but is co-constructed with racial and class stratification, heterosexism, ageism and other systems of oppression[ix]. In accounting for these structures, an intersectionality lens can capture these diverse and unique experience of violence experienced by migrant women.

Moving forward

In conclusion, current policy level understanding and conceptualisation of domestic violence is limited on multiple fronts in engaging with the complex nature of family and kinship structures and deep-rooted patriarchal norms within which families, cultures, societies and state institutions are located. The ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda offers an opportunity to examine specific marginalisations that such universal conception creates.

Migrant women are exposed to multiple forms of violence manifested at familial, community, structural and institutional levels. Their levels of isolation and precariat conditions of living in countries with unfair immigration policies also predispose them to further domestic abuse and restrict possibilities of freedom. A transformative and inclusive agenda for addressing domestic violence must therefore adopt a multi-dimensional perspective and an intersectionality lens to understand and act upon the multiple structural drivers that underpin such pervasive violence.


[i] Young, I.M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of difference. Princeton & Oxford. Princeton University Press. pg 20.

[ii] Galston, W. (1980). Justice and the Human Good. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Alsaba, K., & Kapilashrami, A. (2016). Understanding women’s experience of violence and the political economy of gender in conflict: the case of Syria. Reproductive health matters24(47), 5-17.

[iv] Ghosh, S.V. (2004) Contextualising Domestic Violence: Family, Community, State. In Rinki Bhattacharya (ed) Behind Closed Doors. Domestic Violence in India. 51-66. Sage. New Delhi.

[v] Stark, E. (2007). Coercive Control. How men entrap women in personal life. New York: Oxford University Press.

[vi] Mirza, N. 2017. South Asian women’s experience of abuse by female affinal kin: a critique of mainstream conceptualisations of ‘domestic abuse’. Families, Relationships & Societies. 6(3) 393-409 (17).

[vii] Anitha, S. (2008). Neither safety nor justice: the UK government response to domestic violence against immigrant women. Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law30(3), 189-202.

[viii] Mirza, N. (2016). The UK government’s conflicting agendas and ‘harmful’immigration policies: Shaping South Asian women’s experiences of abuse and ‘exit’. Critical Social Policy36(4), 592-609

[ix] Varcoe, C., Pauly, B. & Laliberte, S. (2011).  Intersectionality, Justice and Influencing Policy. In Olena Hankivsky (ed) Health Inequalities in Canada. Intersectional Frameworks and Practices. Vancouver. Toronto: UCB Press.


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Beneath the spectacle: Challenging Sexual Harassment at the UK Parliament [re-blog]

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This blog post by Cherry Miller (University of Birmingham) was originally published on Political Studies Association blog here on 10 November 2017. It is being reproduced here with permission from the Political Studies Association (PSA) as part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

I recently completed empirical doctoral research that took a workplace ethnographic lens to examine the everyday performance of gender, beneath ceremonial displays of power, within the British House of Commons. It involved detailed ethnographic research and raised a number of issues, arguing that sexualisation is a significant component of gender relations within Parliament. It also very much echoed the continuums of violence that have been reported in the newspapers recently. Examples of behavioural conduct experienced by male and female participants within three working worlds – parliamentary researchers, MPs and members of the House Service – range from low level (compulsory jocularity, lookism, and unsolicited texts for dates); to the harassing behaviour of MPs towards committee staff within the House of Commons and on overseas visits, to physical contact such as rummages at bars. Sexual harassment was shared in the gender regimes of all three ‘working worlds’ that I examined. Given the gravity of the situation at Westminster, many have been asking – how can change come about and what might that change look like?

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Being cautious about ‘tipping point’ proclamations

Sexual harassment inside the UK Parliament has a longer genealogy than the discreet episodes in the news, which gives myself and others’ reservations about ‘crisis’ or ‘tipping point’ proclamations – why is this now a crisis and why hasn’t it always been treated with such seriousness, a crisis of what and for who? A survey conducted by Channel 4 news in 2014, very clearly reported high levels of sexual harassment and raised questions about gendering sexual harassment as a solely ‘woman’s issue’ because the research found that a third of men and women researchers had experienced sexual harassment, and men were more numerous in respondents who had experienced harassment. The Leader of the House answered an Urgent Question on 30th October 2017 on tackling sexual harassment in parliament and the party leaderships met for a ‘summit’ on 6th November. But what sort of material changes and discursive changes can be made?

 ‘Material’ changes to gender regimes

1.Codes of conduct, training and proceduresThe Nolan Principles of public life (selflessness, integrity, leadership, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty) have been long established for MPs, though they are rarely (in)formally reflected on. With regard to broader ethics and reflection, a pattern in my research was that an ‘all hands on deck’ arrangement of time meant that there is less time to formally reflect on ethics. Compulsory management training has been suggested for MPs though Caroline Lucas MP suggested that this should be more encompassing. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson made ‘strong representations’ that the Respect Policy, that had lapsed for House Staff and was reintroduced in July 2014, should include other parliamentary actors. For the House Service, there could be greater institutional recognition that they are stewards of Parliament rather than servants of MPs. At the summit on the 6th November, the party leaders agreed an independent grievance procedure.

The challenge with codes, training and procedures, as with the hotline for parliamentary researchers, is that policies can represent the end of institutional responsibilities rather than their start and becomes the responsibility of individuals to make use of them. Obstacles to reporting should be addressed. A persuasive argument about non-reporting is an insidious argument addressed by both Rainbow Murray and Alison Phipps: that a notion of meritocracy (a contested discourse, not least since political appointments are not strictly scientific) stymies reporting since complainants may not want to damage someone’s career (even if the person is disrupting others’ careers in the workplace). Furthermore, the dissemination, reflection, uptake and rolling evaluation of these codes and procedures is important. Furthermore, should design be a participatory and discursive process beyond the party leaders, given the trauma to individuals?

2.Personnel changes: Showing leadership and making personnel changes is important and parties should apply sanctions consistently. Ruth Davison MSP suggested that we need to ‘clear the stables’ with a ‘big shovel’. Debates on recall should come with caution because women MPs may possibly be more vulnerable to deselection attempts in local parties and could be disproportionately affected. Furthermore, The Guardian argues that personnel change in and of itself may feed the Westminster obsession with runners and riders.

Personnel changes are important because there are broader temporalities to injury such as experiencing a wilful ignorance of harassment by political leaders and Whips. Micro-affirmations towards those who have buried or have committed wrongdoing themselves such as promotions, as Ava Etemadzadeh discussed, can be disempowering and shows a lack of recognition of pain. John Mann MP has recommended a menu of sanctions upon MPs. Disclosure checks on constituency staff was also raised by Dr Lisa Cameron MP. Focusing on individuals is important, but will some of the scripts of power survive these actors, whilst (re)individualising the issue?

3.Institutionalising key critical actors outside of parties: MPs themselves may struggle to provide pastoral care and training as employers because they do not have the time to build these relationships. Therefore institutionalising critical actors is important, such as the Women and Equalities Select committee that was created in 2015. As Sarah Childs has suggested, individuals have invested personal capital taking on battles for gender (in)equality. At the moment complainants can go to the media for justice which is unsatisfactory for both the victim and accused. This apparatus should be outside parties and confidential, involving sexual violence experts. The setting up of an HR department would be a good start and for researchers to be formally employed by parliament. A personnel advisory service can currently sit in on interviews when MPs recruit staff, but currently, it is not a compulsory service. The UNITE union parliamentary branch, should receive institutional recognition from Parliament. However, any engagement with a critical actor is coupled with the performativity of complaint that some respondents feared and ‘turning something into a thing’. ParliaGender – the workplace equality network for gender (in)equality, may be given a stronger role in making representations to the House and could also continue  to use ‘soft’ methodologies at Westminster in addition to codes and procedures such as focus groups and interviews – which has already been conducted successfully – but the Workplace Equality Networks must be properly resourced.

4.Structural questions of institutional power that reproduce gendered norms: This systemic problem goes beyond sexual harassment and is entangled in (in)direct structures of power and hierarchy, differences in pay, availability of alcohol, stratification, seniority, long hours, differences in contacts and networks, a greedy institution in terms of time, that produces mistake anxiety, bullying, one-upmanship, racism, and poor communication. A more radical solution would be that local government – matched by funding, could eventually be seen as an equally esteemed route for a job in politics and can address (ideas about) the concentration of power at Westminster, but this could be arena-shifting and is not exempt from problems of sexual harassment.

Discursive changes to gender regimes in Parliament

Now that we have looked at material aspects of gender regimes, we can challenge some of the ideas, constructions and scripts around power and sexual harassment at Westminster. This is because these ideas may survive more material changes.

1. Reconceptualising power – analysing concentrations of structural power is a good start but this conception of power does not stand up when analysing peer harassment from juniors that occurs ‘out of earshot’ of formal supervisory relationships. Examples include a male researcher reporting horseplay from another researcher, the auditability of female MPs in a chocolate bar system by male researchers, peer harassment for MPs, and a member of the House service outing a male parliamentary researcher in front of an office intern. We may still be left with the ideas of misogyny, homophobia, dominance and hegemonic masculinity, even when structures are changed to be more equal. In the Mark Clarke case with regard to sexual harassment and bullying of young activists, discourses of celebrity and prowess combined with his structural ‘power over’ activists. Therefore ‘power over’ models can simplify what is going on and how authority and power is gendered in its current form. Masculinity, after all, differs in similarly structurally empowered men. This suggests, in my view, that ideas about power are also important in addition to formal structural power. Change might mean reconceiving power, or more specifically, changing the gendering of power away from dominance, towards ‘power with’ others.

2. (Loss of) context – Judith Butler suggests that to be injured is for the addressee ‘to suffer a loss of context’. What makes ‘context’ particularly important to the Westminster Parliament is that behaviour falls below our expectations of a workplace, not least one that legislates on rules for others. Sentiments from participants when discussing gender inequality within this context and the disjuncture between formal modernisation rhetoric and standards of other workplaces, included feeling thunderstruck, incredulous, fury, a zooming out of workplace interactions and describing institutional arrangements as: ‘crazy’, ‘weird’ and ‘ridiculous’. It can be alienating for bystanders who often provide the emotional labour to those who have experienced wrongdoings. A proper discussion about the locus of Parliament and political parties within society and expectations on its members is needed.

3.Discursive change on sexual harassment as a knowledge – The term ‘sexual harassment’ is being fought over and contested, beyond its formalistic legalistic usage that sets a criminal threshold. The way that harassment is spoken about within this institutional arena is important. Brant and Too have foregrounded the ‘workplace origin’ of sexual harassment discourse. Parliament is referred to as an “organism, not an organisation” – thus sexual harassment, a workplace discourse, has arguably not been put on its proper footing in this institutional arena.

‘Man up’ narratives are unhelpful – whilst it is not an illegitimate argument that that sexual harassment affects different men and different women differentially, this does not justify commodification of gender discourses – that is, that men and women can voluntarily ‘man up’ and grow a thick skin. We cannot schedule our reactions to sexual harassment.  Some people are immobilised by sexual harassment, for others, it comes later, some are not overwhelmed and transformed utterly. Sexual harassment has been described in discourses of high jinks, bantz, ‘sex pests’, and ‘Pestminster’. Brant and Too note that this discourse is based upon a localised irritant that ignores responsibility and agency of perpetrators. It does not capture what is going on institutionally.

The potential effect on policy regimes

We may now reflect on broader gendered policy regimes coming out of the UK Parliament. The TUC found that 52% of women and 63% of 18-24 year old women had experienced sexual harassment. A question is whether sexual harassment may catalyse responsiveness to other forms of harassment and underfunding of sexual violence services and adult social care too? Whilst sexual harassment is made illegal under the Equality Act 2010, third party harassment was removed from the Equalities Act in 2013, and makes employees more vulnerable at work. The Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Rt Hon Maria Miller MP highlighted in Parliament that 2/3 of girls in schools had experienced sexual harassment. Domestic violence charities and Rape Crisis Centres have received inadequate funding. Given Women’s Budget Group’s budget assessments since 2009, the 22nd November budget might be a sensible time for the government to act now on gender equality.

My comments here do not ‘reveal’ a ‘truth’ about the essential gendered nature of the UK Parliament. But they do offer some early thoughts on the (re)production of everyday sex/gender hierarchies within the House of Commons. These comments are not exhaustive of the issues at play and I welcome discussion to understand and address this further.

Cherry Miller is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham and has recently successfully defended her doctorate into the performativity of gender within the British House of Commons. She tweets @CherryMMiller.

Image: UK Parliament: CC BY-NC-ND

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MOOC  ‘Understanding Violence against Women – Myths and Realities’

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This blog post by Anni Donaldson (University of Strathclyde) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Anni Donaldson:

I am a Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Project Lead at the Equally Safe in Higher Education (ESHE) Project at the University of Strathclyde.  Based in the School of Social Work and Social  Policy, the ESHE Team are creating a national Gender-based Violence Prevention toolkit for use in Scottish universities. I have been working in the field of domestic abuse and violence against women prevention undertaking research, teaching and practice development for nearly thirty years. I am a historian and am currently completing my doctoral thesis ‘An oral history of domestic abuse in Scotland 1979-1992’.  I am also a blogger and journalist.

Find out more about a related forthcoming event on 7 December here.


As acronyms go MOOC doesn’t roll easily off the tongue.  Massive Open Online Courses harness the reach of the worldwide web to the immediacy of social media and magically turn teaching and learning into something entirely new for educators and learners alike.  As a key element in the Equally Safe in Higher Education (ESHE) Toolkit, developing a new MOOC  ‘Understanding Violence against Women – Myths and Realities’ with my ESHE colleague Roisin McGoldrick took us into uncharted technological and pedagogical waters. With no students in front of you and no entry requirements, these free courses, covering every subject under the sun, attract learners from across the globe who might be studying at all hours of the Scottish day and night. Designing a course on VAW, a complex and at times controversial topic, for an invisible audience, was a challenge to two experienced educators used to the cut and thrust of lectures, powerpoint, handouts and groupwork.  Converting what we knew into audio-visual learning steps to capture and retain learners’ interest over a six week period meant that most of how we did things went out the window. Knowing you are only ever one click away from internet oblivion at the best of times, teaching such a complex and highly controversial a subject required us each to find a friendly yet authoritative ‘voice’, somewhere between a pal and a mentor.  I won’t even go into the whole teaching to camera business…

My long experience of teaching about violence against women has shown me that it is one of the few academic subjects where students’ personal opinions can sometimes trump all the research evidence you can throw at them.  Violence against women (VAW) is so deeply interwoven in the warp and weft of world history and modern life that finding a way to unpack its complexities was our first task.  We wanted to stimulate thinking and ideas around violence against women and girls and offer knowledge and perspectives for people to consider.  We were firmly feminist in our approach and were clear that our aim was not necessarily that everyone agree but that we provided them with a strong foundation from which to build their learning and their own analyses.  To do that we needed to introduce some serious sociological concepts such as gender, power and violence. We hoped this would help them make personal connections with underpinning theories, theoretical frameworks and the lived realities for women living with violence the world over.

Before we started on the content however we were clear we needed a clear ethical learning framework for learning. Given its high international prevalence and gendered nature, it was very likely that many of our participants would have either direct or indirect experience of violence against women and girls in private, social or public settings. We recognised that for some, this may well have influenced their decision to study the course and how they might interpret our materials. We would be covering topics which people would likely find distressing and because we were not around to have a private chat after class, we created a ‘Health Warning’ with regular reminders about the need for self-care and regular breaks to allow processing and learning.  We established clear groundrules stressing the importance of being mindful of themselves and respectful of others in group discussions and in responding to other people’s posts in the online space, their sole and virtual classroom.  We stressed that personal experience is wholly that – unique and personal – and should not be used as evidence of more general points that people might wish to make. The chances of disclosures were likely to be high and we asked people only to share information about themselves that they were comfortable making available in the course’s public online platform. This request was well adhered to and might be a useful reminder for use in other public social media platforms,

“Please be sensitive to the potential for causing distress to yourself and to others in what you say and post during your time studying on this course.

We observed this in action many times.  Participants contravening the ground rules were dealt with very effectively and graciously by the others in ways which were a model of pro-social, measured and well-argued rebuttals.

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Each learning step of the six week course contained short lectures, reading materials, hyperlinks, video extracts and opportunities for online discussion. There were quizzes and ‘live streams’ where people could tune into a Youtube channel and post questions for us to answer live on air.  We eventually got used to teaching direct to camera, to breaking learning down into powerful packets of knowledge and getting to the point and sharpish! We dashed off compact articles, wandered down the vast storehouses of Shutterstock images, interviewed experts over Skype and chipped into online discussions being carried out across continents – reading discussions between people in Sri Lanka, Chile, South Africa, Russia, Italy, Burkino Faso, New Zealand, Australia was thrilling. We learned about media schedules, subtitling, editing and were fortunate in having tremendous contributions from a range of well-kent Scottish and internationally renowned experts in the VAW field and the support of a team of learning technologists and film-makers and audio-visual specialists.

Our community of learners included survivors, a range of professionals, VAW specialists, students and many FutureLearn old hands who were simply interested in exploring a new subject. Some were regular contributors to the discussion and many were not – content to learn in their own way. There is absolutely no requirement to chip in your tuppenceworth.  We witnessed extraordinary moments of enlightenment as people began to make sense of their own or others’ experiences or to connect their practice with new ideas.  We read with interest as people spoke of their growing confidence in their own knowledge to initiate conversations about VAW with family, friends and colleagues for the first time.  In an extraordinary piece of synchronicity,  the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign aftermath broke when we were dealing with ‘Media Representations of VAW’.   The chat was mighty and the analysis of the press coverage was a joy to behold in its confidence, knowledge and outrage! The pleasure of taking part in discussions with participants from every corner of the globe, of hearing their perspectives and of reaching so many people was a new one to me. The feedback since the first course ended in mid-November 2017 has been extremely positive. People connected to the issue in new ways, realised that they could play a part in preventing violence against women and many resolved at the end to take action in their own communities. The course page invites learners to join the global movement to prevent VAW.  By taking part in a course like ours I believe they made a start.  We explored VAW Prevention at the end of the course and when people read about the first Zero Tolerance Campaign in Scotland, the 16 Days of International Activism against VAW, the Inside Outside Project, One Billion Rising and White Ribbon for instance many were inspired into taking action in their own communities.  Learning about VAW is an intervention and a key part of primary prevention.  Knowledge is indeed power, we busted some myths and laid down some realities and just maybe we have helped bring about some changes of mind. People are already signing up for the next run starting on 5 February 2018.  Click here to join us.







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We need to look beyond individuals if we want to tackle gender-based violence: embracing social determinants of health

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This blog post by Karen Lorimer (Glasgow Caledonian University) is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Gender-based violence affects all ages and social classes, but we do still need to pay attention to how and why violence manifests within particular places.  Gender norms are not just taken up by individuals, community-level norms can support violence.  In this piece, Dr Karen Lorimer, a Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, describes the social determinants of health framework to explore the various causes of gender-based violence. 

As a sexual health researcher with a background in sociology, I’ve always been fascinated by the influences upon people’s health.  The social determinants of health framework conveys the various levels of influence on health, including individual, peer group, community and wider society [1]. Often depicted like a rainbow, the framework shows at the inner level there are the immediate or ‘downstream’ influences, such as individuals’ knowledge.  As we progress outwards, the neighbourhood and community level is where we may see the reinforcement of certain norms and individuals may reside in a gendered environment.  Moving towards the outermost layer, or the ‘upstream’ influences, are the wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental level influences such as poverty.  This is an important framework to draw upon in relation to the prevention of gender-based violence, as it reminds us that individuals who perpetrate such violence do not exist in a vacuum, and that should inform our prevention work. We should be trying to intervene across these levels to prevent gender-based violence. However, we do see the dominance of interventions targeting individuals, and which seek to modify individual-level factors such as knowledge [2, 3].


One could say that tackling wider structural issues, such as poverty, are commonly for governments to implement across policy fields; but we should still see a lot more work at community and peer levels than we do.  If we keep focusing on trying to change individual knowledge and behaviours, will we really transform society? The Scottish Equally Safe framework [4, p6] explicitly references gender inequality as underpinning gender-based violence:

We need to eliminate the systematic gender inequality that lies at the root of violence against women and girls, and we need to be bold in how we do it.

None of this is easy, and individual-level interventions have an important role, but on their own they will not be enough to tackle violence against women and girls.  Systematic reviews have found very little evidence on how community level factors are associated with sexual violence [2, 3].  So, if we are to see more work across different levels then it is important that we do that work on the basis of evidence.

This is where the work by my colleagues and me is useful:  we carried out interviews and focus group discussions with 116 men and women age 18-40 years, in which we sought to better understand local gender dynamics and the importance of experiences in places, for the way these influence sexual health understandings and behaviours, including coercion and violence.  Within this, we focused on masculinities, to explore how they are shaped and how they impact on behaviours and attitudes. If we go back to the social determinants of health framework, our work found masculinities at the wider societal level being reworked at a local level of community, peers and family [5].  For example, at the community-level we heard of peer group acceptance of violence and a sense of how normalised various forms of violence were.  Ally [pseudonym], an interviewee from Glasgow, said of domestic abuse:

It’s just something that I’ve seen for years, aye [yes]. It’s a common thing, aye. You know? You might no’ see the physical acts o’ violence. You dae [do] sometimes. But you see the way women are.

When the gender norms flowing from the dominant form of masculinity – hegemonic masculinity – get reworked at community levels and picked up by individuals, then we need to try to tackle the issue at the wider ‘upstream’ level.  When you hear how localised, socio-cultural influences did not appear to foster more egalitarian expressions of masculinity, then how do we expect individuals to be empathetic and respectful towards women?  Thomas, an interviewee, captured this when he said:

people just don’t realise what it’s like tae live and kind o’ grow up in some o’ these places and I think that they’re kind o’ ignorant when they think that they can just change a couple o’ things and it’ll make everything awright

There is a limit to what individual-level interventions can achieve, but they are important when used alongside other approaches. So, we need to keep our attention firmly fixed on improving gender equality, and fostering more positive community-level norms. We must seek transformation not just incremental gains. There are some good examples of interventions that have sought to shift individual behaviours by tackling gender norms as they are linked to gender inequalities.  For example, the Stepping Stones intervention in the South African context is labelled gender-transformative as it sought to reconfigure gender norms towards gender equitable relationships [6]. However, when dominant structural-level influences, such as poverty, remain unchanged then it may be that we only see marginal gains even with such work.  This is why it is important that we pay attention to each of the levels a model such as the social determinants of health alerts us to. We must impress upon governments to reduce poverty, we must ensure there are not just laws but law enforcement, and we must seek to intervene across communities to ensure these environments are conducive to individual behaviour change.  Importantly, this means understanding various communities and not assuming everywhere is the same.  Yet, as the same time, gender inequalities across the whole of societies must be tackled to improve women’s lives.  The Scottish policy says we should be bold.  Indeed, we should.





  1. Dahlgren, G. and M. Whitehead, Policies and strategies to promote equity in health. Copenhagen: Regional Office for Europe. World Health Organization, 1992.
  2. Tharp, A.T., et al., A Systematic Qualitative Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Sexual Violence Perpetration. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2013. 14(2): p. 133-167.
  3. DeGue, S., et al., A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2014. 19(4): p. 346-362.
  4. Scottish Government & COSLA, Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. 2016: Edinburgh.
  5. Messerschmidt, J.W., Engendering Gendered Knowledge: Assessing the Academic Appropriation of Hegemonic Masculinity. Men and Masculinities, 2012. 15(1): p. 56-76.
  6. Gibbs, A., et al., Reconstructing masculinity? A qualitative evaluation of the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures interventions in urban informal settlements in South Africa. Culture, health & sexuality, 2015. 17(2): p. 208-222.



Dr Karen Lorimer is a Senior Research Fellow and medical sociologist at Glasgow Caledonian University, where she is a member of the Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus Research Group.  She is a member of the Scottish Government’s National Monitoring and Research Group and the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on Sexual Health and Blood Borne Viruses.  She was principal investigator on the CSO-funded ‘DeMaSH’ project (CZH/4/925).

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