24 November 2015

S4M-14930 Violence Against Women

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14930, in the name of Margaret Burgess, on violence against women: 16 days of activism.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Labour amendment, which gives us the opportunity at 5 o’clock to speak from the chamber with a single voice that leaves no ambiguity as to our shared view on the subject. Violence against women does not simply endanger women, although it clearly does so; it demeans men, who are the primary source of that violence.

Laws are one way in which we can tackle the problem, and there are areas where we need to legislate. I welcome the Government’s actions in bringing forward new laws, but the fear of prosecution in those who perpetrate violence against women is likely to have a substantially lesser influence in leading to change than the other kind of measures that we need. Gathering evidence is a difficult task for the justice system to undertake, particularly when a lot of the violence is psychological as much as physical and when much of it takes place out of sight of witnesses. There is nothing much that we can do to address that issue.

The change that will make the greatest difference will not be a legislative change, necessary though that is in certain areas; it will come when we find ways to change men’s minds. Alison McInnes is correct that focusing on female victims feeds a reinforcement, through females seeing themselves as potential victims and, more importantly in relation to men, by showing to men that females are victims, inferior and something to be dominated. There are dangers in a gender-based approach to risk management in relation to that kind of violence. Males’ stereotypes of women can be reinforced if we do not take great care.

There are wider societal benefits from tackling male attitudes and behaviours that lead to the abuse of women and girls. A man who uses what he perceives as his relative power in fact demonstrates his weakness. A strong man or woman is one who is able to share their power—to stand back and let someone else have the space to be themselves. The man who has to enforce his will on women and use his power to abuse them is weak.

Using power to abuse women sets a pattern of behaviour among men that is likely to lead to such men also abusing people of different races, sexual orientation, faith and political views, and it perhaps even means—I have no evidence but I instinctively feel that it is likely to be the case—that they are more likely to be cruel to animals. That is because the disposition—the mental set—of people who perpetrate violence against women is likely to lead them into behaviours that go beyond that. Therefore, there is a much wider benefit if we can change men’s minds.

The question is how we change men because, if we do not do that, we do not deliver much. First, and quite obviously, we must help the next generations of men grow up with different attitudes. I see some progress in that regard.

Recently, my four-year-old goddaughter, following a visit to Our Dynamic Earth, explained to me how the universe started. It was really quite a good scientific explanation from a four-year-old. She asked me, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” and we debated that. Of course, she also asked how the universe came into being when there was nothing there. It was terrific that she was getting engaged in pursuits that, 20 years ago, were thought to be essentially male pursuits. When I saw her again a week ago, we did a little scientific experiment together that involved dissolving crystals of salt in water. We saw them disappear and then we boiled the water off and saw the salt reappear. I gather that she went along to nursery school two days later and explained that to all her fellow pupils.

There is a wider issue about equalising our attitudes to people in society that are quite independent of their gender. However, men are today’s problem.

We want to challenge attitudes and beliefs, which is extremely difficult. The psychological phenomenon that is called confirmation bias—the unconscious filtering out of information that is at odds with our established beliefs and learned behaviours—is a substantial barrier to change. If we are to persuade people to change their attitudes and thinking, we need to engage intensively. Much of that work must be one to one, and we can do that only with the people whose behaviours most severely affect other people in society. That is a limited approach and likely to be costly, so the alternative approach that we must take is to focus on corralling and restricting the unacceptable behaviours. That means shifting wide community attitudes.

I am an optimist by nature. I think that we might reach the tipping point on the matter in the relatively near future, similar to the one that we reached with drink driving. When I first started drinking, drinking and driving was basically just one of the things that happened—nobody bothered about it that much—but now it is viewed very differently in society. We must get to that position on violence against women.

I do not want the equality that could flow from women adopting the male behaviours that we have spent the afternoon criticising. The society that I want and that I hope we all want is based on mutual respect, changing behaviours and safety for all citizens in Scotland and throughout the world.


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