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Caroline Spelman: Society's attitude to violence against women needs challenging

Speech to the Conservative Women’s conference

"The theme of today's conference is violence against women and who could fail to understand it's significance a day after reports that video footage of a woman being raped had been distributed on you-tube.

As if that wasn't horrific enough - consider that the site drew 600 "visitors".

600 people who have clicked through to see a woman being violently raped.

The question this triggers in most people mind's can only be "what kind of society are we living in?"

That leads me onto what I would like to talk about which is to take today's theme a little broader and talk about society's attitude to violence against women.

I imagine there are few of us here today who haven't been touched in some way by the issue of violence against women.

Some will know a friend or family member who has been a victim, others will know themselves the fear of violence.

Conservative Women's Organisation has done an outstanding job in raising the profile of violence against women, you are to be congratulated on that.

The salience that the issue now has in centre right politics is in no small part down to the work you and others have done.

I myself have spoken at conferences you have organized on stalking, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

The personal testimony guest speakers at those conferences have offered has been at times painful and at times deeply distressing, but that is the reality of violence against women.

In my role as an MP I encounter violence against women all too frequently. I see at first hand women who are beyond the reach of authorities, but within reach of a violent partner.

That's what prompted me to set up a charity in the West Midlands called MABL, against the odds.

We were the statistic - only one refuge bed per 200,0000 population.

But now I am glad to say we have a refuge and provide a range of services to victims of domestic violence.

This includes going beyond providing support in the wake of domestic violence and actually doing preventative work.

Charities like MABL, make a real difference to women up and down the country.

But as a society we shouldn't confine our ambition to simply dealing with the fall out from domestic violence - we need to take a long hard, critical look at people's attitude to violence against women.

Only yesterday John Yates, the Met's assistant commissioner, told the Guardian about the "scepticism and inertia" that too often greeted women reporting rape to the police.

I think John Yates could have gone further, the scepticism and inertia too often goes beyond the police and into society at large.

It's thinly veiled but it finds expression in comments like "well, what was she doing walking home alone at that time of night?", or in judgments formed on the basis of what someone was wearing at the time.

How can we be surprised that women are reluctant to report rape if society's first response is to question whether the victim herself bears any responsibility for the crime?

The fact is when a woman says no she means no.

What she's had to drink, what she's wearing and how many boyfriends she has had doesn't change that.

The danger is that the scepticism that Inspector Yates was talking about, and the scepticism that exists strays dangerously close to making excuses for rape.

And there are no excuses. There are no excuses for violence against women in any form.

But the cynicism isn't confined to rape allegations.

It's there in the case of domestic violence as well.

How often have you heard a version of the question "well why doesn't she just leave him and move out".

That question betrays a corrosive, underlying suspicion that sometimes a woman is responsible for the acts of violence committed against her - and that is what society has to challenge.

So why am I evoking this here, with you, today?

Because events like this play a central role in dispelling that scepticism and inertia.

We know that there are no excuses for violence against women, but society has to get that message too.

This is an issue of social responsibility.

David Cameron has rightly made social responsibility the bedrock of our approach to making the changes our country needs.

Social responsibility means accepting that everyone has a role to play in creating the kind of society we want to live in.

It means that we can't rely on laws and legislation alone.

That's why the attitude that society has towards allegations of violence towards women is so important.

Conferences like this, challenging statements like John Yates' gave yesterday all have a pivotal role to play in shaping those attitudes.

In time I firmly believe we can dispel the remnants of cynicism that lingers when talking about violence against women, and society will be a better place for it.

By having this conference today, talking about these vital issues, we are engaged in a valuable job of work.

But we can't do it on our own. Government has a lot of work to do as well.

Let's be under no illusion, the prosecution rate for rape allegations is appalling.

Only 1 in 20 rape allegations end up as prosecutions, ten years ago this figure was 1 in 13.

That's not the only alarming pattern of statistics - in 1984 there were 68 dedicated Rape Crisis Centres, today there are only 37.

On average a third of complainants withdraw their allegations of raping, often giving the reason as fear of not being believed and fear of the legal process itself.

This tells me how desperately we need advocates to support women through the process.

When it comes to domestic violence the statistics are no more encouraging. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence at some stage in their life, but less than a third of victims will report it.

The legislation that is in place to help protect women, notably the Domestic Violence Crimes and Victims Act of 2004 is woefully inadequate.

I could go on - stalking is an act of psychological violence against an individual that often culminates in physical violence.

But legislation doesn't provide enough tools for dealing with it, and all too often it isn't until violence has taken place that it can be acted on.

In my caseload there is a young woman whose stalker has been prosecuted six times and she is just not adequately protected by the law.

In my view, she's simply not safe.

But we know the failings of the system.

Our Party is in the middle of a strategic review of all aspects of policy relating to violence against women and I want to pay tribute to the hard work and dedication which has resulted in our 'Women In The World Today' report.

It is an excellent report which will provide a valuable context for analyzing where current policy falls short.

The report makes clear the need for better sex education, but what strikes me is sex education needs to address the culture and attitudes towards sex and relationships.

Girls need to feel reassured of their right to say no without being compromised by peer pressure.

They shouldn't live in a culture where they feel the need to say yes.

Let me conclude by restating that addressing the policy failures must go hand in hand with addressing society's failures.

There's no point legislating if a climate of cynicism deters violence being reported in the first place.

Likewise there is no point cultivating greater sympathy and understanding for women if the laws aren't there to back them up.

We need a twin-pronged approach, and I'd like to close by saying that events like this fill me with optimism that as a Party we can deliver those changes.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in it."

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