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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 29, 2023


Gender-based Violence

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11469, in the name of Siobhian Brown, on the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible. I advise members that there is no time in hand and that speaking allocations will therefore be enforced vigorously.


The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

During the annual 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign, individuals and organisations worldwide call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. I am proud that the Scottish Parliament remains an active part of that worldwide call, but we should all be saddened that it is necessary in 2023. Although I welcome Scotland’s and the Parliament’s recognition of the 16 days campaign and a debate in which the Parliament can unite in calling for continued action to tackle violence against women and girls, it is shocking that we still need to address that devastating issue and its harms to individuals and our society.

No matter how far we have come as a society, abuse and violence against half of our population are still prevalent. Violence against women has a profound impact on women’s and girls’ lives, with detriments to health, wellbeing, financial stability, the fulfilment of potential and, ultimately, gender equality.

Each year, the 16 days campaign focuses on a specific theme. This year, Scottish partners agreed the theme “Imagine a Scotland without violence against women”. That is the vision at the heart of “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls”. The strategy, which is co-owned between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, sets out a vision of a strong and flourishing country in which all individuals are equally safe and respected and in which women and girls live free from all forms of violence and abuse and the attitudes that help to perpetuate them.

I am really pleased to see in the public gallery today Councillor Maureen Chalmers, who is COSLA’s community wellbeing spokesperson and my co-chair on the equally safe joint strategic board—I know that we will all welcome her. Councillor Chalmers’s presence reminds us of the necessity of visible leadership across all spheres of government and our institutions to address violence against women and girls. Leadership and action are absolutely necessary, as we all know.

The equally safe strategy provides a framework for action to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls. Over the past year, we have worked with Councillor Chalmers and our joint strategic board to gather views on how that important strategy could be strengthened and reinvigorated as part of a refresh. Engagement with our partners across the sector provided an opportunity for us to reflect on recent societal changes and understand the key issues that we must address to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls.

I am grateful to everyone who has generously shared their experience to help to create a strategy whose ambition we can look to with pride. I recognise those who work in the specialist support organisations, who have amassed a wealth of experience from supporting victim survivors over many years. Their insight and wisdom are valued by all of us, and we will continue to work with those stakeholders as we develop our policy responses across the entirety of government.

The strategy will be launched next week. It is not an end in itself but a continuation of our focus and practical work. We need to make progress on advancing women’s equality in a range of spaces—economic, civic, social and cultural.

Although there has been significant progress in policy, practices and responses to violence against women, and there are more people who will call out behaviour and action, we all know that women’s lives continue to be constrained by the threat and experience of rape and sexual abuse, domestic abuse, stalking, sexual harassment and other forms of violence.

Women and girls continue to feel that it is up to us to modify our behaviour to keep safe. However, as we all know, it is men—it is predominantly and overwhelmingly men—who carry out the violence, harassment and abuse, and, to tackle and end the violence, it is men who need to not just modify but fully change their behaviour and attitudes. They—not the victims or those who are threatened—are responsible for their actions, and they need to change, just as society needs to change the systemic inequalities that can underpin that behaviour.

Women’s inequality is both a cause and a consequence of violence against women. Gender stereotypes and norms continue to limit women’s access to labour market opportunities and economic resources, which affects levels of economic independence.

Eradicating violence against women will require us to tackle entrenched gender inequalities. That is why our refreshed equally safe strategy places even greater emphasis on primary prevention to stop violence against women and girls before it occurs by tackling the root cause of the problem: gender inequality. That means focusing on the structures, systems, policies and assumptions that we all live with. It also means understanding the issue through data, which is why further work on supporting data is being progressed through the domestic abuse justice round-table process. Extensive engagement over the past year with a wide range of stakeholders in the public and third sectors has shown just how important that is.

The equally safe strategy is the anchor of our approach, which emphasises the importance of primary prevention of violence by tackling women’s inequality, building the capability and capacity of mainstream and specialist services, ensuring a robust justice response to supporting survivors, and holding perpetrators to account for their actions and choices.

We recognise how important it is to educate children and young people and to challenge outdated stereotypes, and we continue to take forward a range of actions in schools to address gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Rape Crisis Scotland provides a national sexual violence prevention programme to all local authority secondary schools in Scotland, and our mentors in violence prevention Scotland programme is working to tackle gender stereotypes and attitudes that condone violence against women and girls.

As part of the refresh of the equally safe strategy, we heard concerns relating to online and technology-enabled violence against women. Although everyone recognises the positive benefits of digital communication, I recognise that it offers additional tools and channels for perpetrators of abuse. Our ever-growing reliance on social platforms can exacerbate the dangers with which we are already familiar.

In response to those online dangers, we are progressing the development of evidence briefings on technology-facilitated violence against women and girls to inform our policy development. Furthermore, we are providing funding to organisations such as South West Grid For Learning Trust Ltd to raise awareness and increase understanding of intimate image abuse and to facilitate the delivery of practical support for people who are affected by it.

We have been told of concerns about the negative influence of pornography and of the need to work collaboratively to consider how it drives the societal issues that lead to violence against women and girls. The refresh of the equally safe strategy enables us to adapt to changes in the social and legislative landscape without altering the strategy’s valued aims and objectives.

Public policy can be a powerful tool for creating a context that is hostile to violence against women and girls. That is why the equally safe in practice training modules on gender equality and violence against women are now available to Scottish Government civil servants. The modules, which were developed by Scottish Women’s Aid, offer valuable insights to help officials to create policies and acknowledge the impact of violence against women on the lives of women and girls. In addition, Engender has been funded to explore primary prevention policy approaches and create a toolkit to enable policy makers to embed primary prevention in policy making.

I have met survivors and many people who work with them. They have told me about the harms caused to individuals, their families and their communities. They have told me about the challenges of getting support and of being heard and taken seriously. They have told me about how perpetrators continue to use systems and services to abuse. They have told us about the challenges that they face as a result of the cost of living crisis. Black and minority ethnic women have explained the specific challenges that they face in getting their voice heard and the need to better understand the violence and abuse that they experience.

In that context, the Scottish Government, alongside our partners in COSLA, will consider the funding and procurement recommendations in “The Independent Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Violence Against Women and Girls Services”. We are committed to working with partners to ensure the sustainability of funding, and a project board of key public sector and specialist stakeholders is being formed to oversee that work. I take this opportunity to thank the chair and the advisory group for the breadth of work that was undertaken.

The 16 days campaign is an opportunity to highlight the blight of violence against women and girls. However, that violence is a concern 365 days a year, each and every year, and sustained action is needed to address it. We must seek opportunities to work collaboratively and constructively wherever possible. We must continue to work together with partners, organisations and society to stamp out violence and misogyny wherever we see it.

It is vital that we keep our eyes on the prize of ending men’s violence against women and girls. We must move forward with a shared understanding of the underlying causes and therefore what needs to change to end violence for good and ensure that the equally safe strategic approach continues to deliver the galvanising focus that it has had to date.

Engender recently noted that women who have experienced abuse found it

“difficult to imagine a world without abuse”

and that they lacked hope that prevention of men’s abuse of women is possible. Is that not a depressing indictment of our society?

You need to conclude, minister.

Siobhian Brown

However, as difficult as it is, I imagine a world in which women and girls are free from the violence of men. We all have a role to play in challenging everyday sexism and the systems, cultures and norms that perpetuate violence against women and girls. Let us continue to do that today, for the rest of the 16 days, and every day.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the international 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign; welcomes the 2023 national theme, “Imagine a Scotland without Gender-based Violence”; condemns any violence against women and girls, and acknowledges the significant damage and harm that it causes to individuals and to wider society; recognises that the eradication of such violence can only be achieved through social change and changes in attitudes, actions and behaviour, and acknowledges, therefore, the responsibility of collective leadership across all spheres of government and society to challenge the gender inequalities that fundamentally underpin violence against women and girls.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, minister.

I have warned members that there is no time in hand and that the chair will intervene, so your peroration should start before the end of your speech, not at the point at which you should have concluded it.


Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to open this debate for my party, and I welcome the Parliament taking the chance to discuss this crucial issue during the international 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign. As the minister has noted, this year’s theme in Scotland is “Imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence”. The sad fact is that we can only imagine that. It is a fantasy at the moment; it is not anywhere close to reality.

Violence against women is everywhere. It is ingrained in society. A recent survey by the NASUWT, the teachers union, revealed that, although male teachers experience more threats of physical violence or abuse, women experience more actual physical violence, and the frequency is substantially higher. That is not acceptable, and we must take action to stop the increasing violence and abuse in our schools.

The police record more than 170 incidents of domestic abuse every single day in Scotland. Almost 65,000 instances of domestic abuse were recorded in 2021-22. Attacks and abuse are common, not rare, for women, and that needs to change.

The Government motion is right that we need a radical social change to prevent this violence. We agree with the motion that there is a need for a system-wide approach. We support the motion’s demand for collective responsibility—for everyone in Scotland to take an active role in preventing violence against women.

That said, we feel that the Government can and should lead the way. It could make changes to the justice system so that it does a better job of protecting women and preventing harm. We have also put forward a suggestion to improve it. My colleague Pam Gosal MSP has proposed a domestic abuse prevention bill that, if enacted, would make Scotland a world leader in tackling domestic abuse. There are many changes that could be made to the justice system to prevent violence against women from occurring in the first place. We hope that the Government will take the spirit of its motion forward and fully consider accepting and introducing that proposal.

However, it is not only on prevention that the Government can make a difference. The system needs to be improved, so that, when violence does occur, there are effective deterrents against future offences. So many acts of violence against women are repeat offences. More than half of all domestic abuse crimes fall into that category. We need to focus on changing criminals’ behaviour to prevent further attacks on women.

Will the member take an intervention?

Sharon Dowey

There is no spare time and my speech is full of points that I want to make—sorry.

If offenders believe that the police do not have the resources to monitor or pursue them, that will not help women. If offenders think that the punishments for crimes are fairly soft, that will not help women. What will help women is making sure that they are supported on the road to justice. As it stands, it often feels to victims and survivors as if the system is working against them. Women feel that the system lets violent men continue to harass them in a number of ways. They feel that the court process and its aftermath can be exploited by violent and sexual offenders.

I am sure that every single MSP will be able to cite a constituent who has contacted them because a violent man will not leave them or their family alone. I will raise the experience of one family I have been working with since I was elected. As per their wishes, I have protected their anonymity. The family have been plagued by a violent man for years. Two years ago, in the chamber debate on the same topic, I spoke about their experiences. To our shame, their troubles are on-going.

From 2005 onwards, the man terrorised multiple families, including three of his own children. He has abused and assaulted mothers, and he has abducted a child. He received no jail time; his punishment was barely a slap on the wrist. The man threw the children along hallways, grabbed them by the throat and hair, and dragged them upstairs by their ears. He was charged with six counts of child abuse but was released on bail. He received non-contact orders but quickly broke them, just as he had broken every non-contact order that had been placed on him for more than 15 years. The family was forced to flee their home.

Finally, it seemed that the woman and her family might be free of that individual—until she sought a divorce. Not only did this violent man decide to contest the divorce; he now wants access to one of the children. That young child has recovered brilliantly from the hell that she has been put through. Her family say that she thrives in school, where she gets glowing reports. She has little to no memory of this horrible man. However, now he is trying to force himself back into the lives of that child and her mother.

The man is using the court system to try to gain access to the child, forcing the family to relive the traumatic events in order to justify why he should not have any access. That is despite the fact that the man pled guilty to child abuse, and despite the fact that he has been documented as having hit the little girl and her siblings. Why is he allowed to get away with continuing to traumatise the girl, her mother and the family? Why is he not prevented from contesting the divorce in the first place? Why is there not an immediate block on his attempts to see his child? There is no good reason why the man should be allowed to continue harassing the family. He must be forced to leave them alone, to allow them to move on. He should not have the right to continue dragging them back to relive what he did.

The Government may argue that everyone has rights and that legal processes must be respected. However, until it steps in to make changes that stop violent men such as this from continuing to abuse women, what will happen? The same crimes, the same violence and the same abuse will happen to women year after year. We can keep coming to the Parliament and talking about the issue—and that is welcome—but, at some stage, reality needs to dawn on the Parliament that we need to act. It is 16 days of action not talking that we need.

Anyone committing violence against women needs to be apprehended, brought to justice and punished. They need to be stopped in their tracks, not allowed to keep attacking, abusing and traumatising women. Only then will we see the change in society that women deserve.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence, as the motion says, and imagine a world without violence against women and girls. Scottish Labour is pleased to support the Government motion today.

Sadly, sexual crimes in Scotland have increased by 8 per cent in the past four years, and one woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner every six weeks. It is still the case that a quarter of women and girls in Scotland will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. We are, indeed, further away from our goals, not nearer, unfortunately.

It is clear that we need a significant shift in social and cultural norms, as well as a legal reform framework. It is also clear that our work begins with talking to boys in school settings if we are to have any chance of breaking the cycle.

I look forward to the refresh of the equally safe strategy, which we will get a chance to debate next week. Last week, Scottish Labour launched its own report on how to tackle violence against women and girls. During a year’s consultation that we conducted, we heard how prevalent misogyny is in our society—not surprisingly. We heard from some amazing women and organisations. I sincerely thank them for their involvement, and I put on record our thanks to Scottish Government officials for attending our round-table discussions.

It will not be a shock to any woman that the report found that the justice system continues to fail women and that more needs to be done to invest in and diversify far-reaching services that support women and girls who are affected by sexual harassment and abuse. Educating boys and young men is key to long-term change. Getting men involved in our conversations from a young age is one way that we can start to make serious steps towards tackling the epidemic of male violence. For too long, as the minister, Siobhan Brown, said, the onus has been placed on women and girls to regulate their behaviour to accommodate boys and men.

Sharon Dowey referenced the report by the NASUWT, so I will not go over the points that she already made. Suffice it to say that, although I am not in any way downplaying the extreme violence in our schools towards male teachers, female teachers experience more violence than male teachers do. In the past 12 months alone, one in five women teachers reported being hit or punched by pupils. Some have been spat at or headbutted. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of girls and young women report that they have been sexually harassed at school over the past year.

The online environment plays a huge part in teaching boys that that behaviour is okay. As we have discussed many times in debates, social media influencers who use platforms to spread misogyny pave the way for a growing rape culture. That is precisely why we need a comprehensive cross-campus strategy that includes lessons to educate boys and young men on the links between gender stereotypes and violence. How many more discussions can we have that are only women talking to women? We need more male role models to step up and challenge other men when they witness women and girls being harassed and abused. That applies to online environments as well as everyday life.

As we know, it is also a global fight. As the minister said, the theme for the 16 days of activism is “Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”. The need for prevention is increasingly clear. Human trafficking, female genital mutilation and child marriage are ruining the lives of hundreds of millions of girls across the world. Child marriage, for example, is rooted in gender inequality. It limits access to women and girls’ health and education and their political participation. It limits the amount of control that they have over their own bodies and increases their risk of experiencing gender-based violence.

However, those problems are happening in our communities. The number of human trafficking cases in Scotland is at its highest since records began. Seventy-two per cent of trafficking victims are women and girls, who are often trafficked for sexual exploitation. In trying to address the issue, we face criminal gangs that are running on a global scale. In 2023, a large number of women who are trafficked to Scotland are found to be Albanian or Vietnamese. They are sometimes held in a network that spans the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

At the Scottish Police Federation reception last week, one police officer told me that there was an incident in which one person in London was directing men to residential properties around Glasgow. That was not uncommon. In fact, some of the call centres have operated in Glasgow. Human trafficking has been identified in all 32 local authorities in Scotland. Those groups are organised and have a formal structure that operates in plain sight. It is important that we recognise how horrific the crime is. The youngest person involved was just 13 years old.

As I have said in previous debates, I will continue my own work on image-based abuses. We need to have clearer law on men who abuse private images. The Women’s Support Project, which some people had a chance to talk to—it is an incredible charity—talks about many incidents of that. I will mention how images on the OnlyFans website are misused. There have been countless cases of creators’ content being screenshotted, recorded or hacked. It is important to note that, although they consented at the time, a lot of those child and adult performers are sadly haunted by those images for the rest of their lives.

It is important to debate this important issue in Parliament. Scottish Labour is delighted to support the motion.



Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Scottish Liberal Democrats will support the motion.

I thank the many organisations that have been in contact prior to today’s debate for the materials that they have provided in preparation. They work tirelessly to reduce gender inequality and gender-based violence.

It is important that we dedicate time and thought to the issue in the chamber each year. As a member of the cross-party group on men’s violence against women and children, I know that colleagues across the chamber spend a large amount of their time addressing the problem. By tackling misogyny and unchecked behaviour, we can break the link between casual sexism and its development into violence against women and girls and ensure that

“every act of violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, is unequivocally condemned, and must be fully investigated with the utmost priority.”

Those are the words of Sima Bahous, the United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women.

Today’s debate also serves as a reminder of the patriarchy and misogyny that prevent women and girls in Afghanistan, Iran and other countries from being free to have an education. We are once again faced with daily images of the impacts of conflict on communities. In times of hardship during conflict, women often act to absorb the shocks of the impacts that are felt hardest by them and their children. It is crucial that women play a significant role in conflict resolution.

The cost of living crisis has shone a light on that same shock-absorber role of women here at home. Shetland’s Compass Centre highlights that women are more likely to do low-paid work; more likely to rely on public transport, which is much patchier in remote, rural and island areas; and more likely to struggle with high childcare costs. They are twice as dependent on social security as men and they have less access to resources and assets such as home ownership and occupational pensions. Women are also disproportionately impacted by welfare reforms, and the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaigners have waited too long to see redress from poorly communicated pension reforms.

As the motion highlights, this year’s national theme invites us to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence. That may seem a daunting prospect when we read that, in 2021-22, Police Scotland recorded 64,807 incidents of domestic abuse. In cases where gender was recorded, 81 per cent of those incidents involved a female victim and a male accused, as Engender highlights. Figures that were released this week through the Scottish crime and justice survey for 2021-22 show that perceptions of crime and safety also reveal gender inequality. Although, overall, people are more likely to feel safe in their communities, there are sharp differences among the population when that is broken down. Ninety per cent of men said that they feel safe walking alone after dark, while only 63 per cent of women agreed.

Shetland’s Compass Centre has also raised the matter of island jury trials. Trials that were previously heard in Shetland are currently being heard on the Scottish mainland because of staffing challenges with the prisoner escort provider. Some of the trials that are affected are for GBV-related crimes, and the situation is having a serious impact on Shetland survivors and witnesses—including professional witnesses, who have to deal with travel logistics on top of everything else. The centralisation of access to justice for island survivors is unacceptable and it must be addressed. Failure to do so will be a barrier to reporting and, ultimately, justice will be denied. It is a backward step and one that must not become permanent.


Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

According to the Scottish Government’s recorded crime figures, 14,834 sexual crimes were recorded in Scotland in the year ending June 2023. The police recorded 64,807 instances of domestic abuse in 2021-22, four out of five of which involved a female victim/survivor and a male perpetrator. The figures are extremely concerning, but gender-based violence is not merely statistics. There are women and girls behind every one of those figures. Gender-based violence is a harsh reality that is experienced by our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. It happens in the home, in workplaces and outside in public spaces. It knows no bounds and it has a lasting and damaging impact on the individual and wider society.

Unfortunately, every woman has her own experiences of sexual harassment, assault or violence. I know that my colleagues across the chamber agree that, to tackle that, it is time to change the narrative and ask why men are harassing, abusing or being violent, rather than suggesting that women are doing wrong. This year’s theme invites us to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence. That should not be difficult. The campaign calls on us, as elected representatives, to show what we are doing to eradicate such violence. We must invest in that for the future of our women and girls.

Key to achieving that is primary prevention, as the charity Zero Tolerance has highlighted. Secondary prevention—that is, investing in support during a period of violence or after violence has occurred—is not enough. That is why I welcome the Scottish Government’s proposed misogyny bill, which will put a real focus on protecting women and girls.

We know that serious violent acts do not usually happen out of nowhere. Men do not just wake up and decide to commit heinous violent acts against a woman. We know that such acts are often an escalation of more low-level misogynistic views and behaviours. For too long, there has been a societal tolerance of misogyny across Scotland, which has made our women and girls feel unsafe, distressed and humiliated. That is why the bill is so important. Tackling the root cause and catching misogynistic behaviour early, before there is a chance of a serious crime being committed, could be revolutionary.

However, although the misogyny bill will be vital, it can only be part of the response in tackling harassment and violence against women. How do we stop young men and boys perpetrating such misogynistic behaviour in the first place, before it escalates? Various pieces of the academic literature have pointed to the link between traditional, toxic views of masculinity and harassment of and violence against women. On its own, holding such views would not be enough—plenty of men adhere to traditional views of masculinity but would never commit such violent acts. However, it is still vital that we consider those traditional views, as that will help us to challenge harmful views of masculinity that condone violence against women and emphasise men’s dominance.

Across the academic literature, it is suggested that we must reshape those views of masculinity at a young age. That could be done in primary schools by having more discussions about consent, the use of language, healthy friendships and what it means to be a good man, rather than just talking about what boys are expected to do. I would be interested to see further work being done in that area and such discussions being included across the curriculum.

Imagining a Scotland without gender-based violence should not be difficult. It is achievable, and I am pleased to see the work that is currently being done. However, we can always do more, and it is on us to call out low-level misogynistic behaviours when we see them so that they do not escalate into the unthinkable.


Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which marks the international day for the elimination of violence against women and the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence that follow it. This is the third year in a row that I have contributed to the debate, and I cannot help but feel disappointed that the debate is still considered to be so necessary every year. However, violence against women is still a fact of life, and until it is stamped out in every part of the world, it is only right that the Parliament calls out such violence every year. Another year may have passed, but it is clear that change on the issue is no less needed.

This year’s national theme asks us to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence. That is a reminder that violence against women is not just something that happens far away, in distant corners of the world; every year, it affects women right here in Scotland. Last year, there were seven domestic abuse-related murders and nearly 500 charges of attempted murder and serious assault related to domestic abuse, and nearly 1,800 charges were reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service under the domestic abuse legislation. We also know that domestic abuse incidents are almost at a record high. Nearly 65,000 incidents were reported to Police Scotland in 2021-22, more than half of which involved repeat offenders.

Three years ago, the Scottish Government promised to set up a leavers fund for victims of domestic abuse, so I welcome last month’s announcement of the new fund for women to leave an abusive relationship, which has been backed by £500,000 of funding. Too often, women face a financial barrier when attempting to leave their abuser. I hope that the funding will prove to be effective in breaking that barrier down. As it stands, the pilot funding will be offered to those who are fleeing domestic abuse in five local authority areas. I hope that the full scheme, which will cover the whole of Scotland, will follow soon.

In last year’s debate on the subject, I was pleased to be able to speak about my proposed domestic abuse prevention bill, which had just completed its consultation phase. I am pleased that my bill has now received the cross-party support that it needed to process to the next stage in Parliament and that it is being drafted. More needs to be done to keep tabs on abusers who still pose a risk to potential victims. At a recent round-table event in the Scottish Parliament, I had the opportunity to speak to a number of victims of domestic abuse, and one issue that keeps arising is why the onus is on the victim to speak when they are at risk. A domestic abuse register would change that. It would place the onus firmly on the abuser to keep updating authorities such as the police, so that victims could be kept safe.

My bill has expert and grass-roots support, and I hope that members across the chamber will consider my proposals with an open mind when they are introduced to Parliament. The 16 days of action against gender-based violence are a reminder that each of us needs to play our part on the issue. For my part, I hope that my domestic abuse prevention bill will take Scotland one step closer to stamping out this appalling crime.

We are all united in wanting to see real change on the issue. That means working together, backing the amazing domestic abuse organisations that do such great work in all our communities and ensuring that we all continue to condemn violence against women and girls in all forms, at all times and in all places.


Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I have a daughter. I brought her up to be ambitious, hard working and feisty, and I think that I succeeded, yet I see that she and her friends have in their lives experiences that are similar to those that have occurred in mine. My reality has become her reality. How disappointing.

Women as a sex class are under assault like never before: disproportionately affected by Covid, disproportionately affected by a cost of living crisis, and told by some men what it is to be a woman. Bold changes are needed to mark significant change, and that needs to start with the plans to criminalise prostitution. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is unequivocal. States must address trafficking and prostitution if they are to eliminate discrimination and violence against women.

I know that work on that is under way in the Scottish Government, and I appreciate its complexity, but I add my voice to the voices of those who continue to press for ambitious change. As long as women are seen as a legal commodity to be bought by men, there will be no significant shift in men’s violence against women. The ability fundamentally fosters a sense of male entitlement and ownership that permeates every aspect of our society. Logically, the term “men’s demand for prostitution” will ultimately need to be reframed as “people’s demand for prostitution”. How offensive.

What does the current data tell us? Police Scotland recorded that sex crimes rose from more than 13,000 in 2020-21 to 15,000 the following year—a 15 per cent rise in one year. The breakdown of the 2021-22 data shows that, of all those sex crimes, there were around 2,500 rapes or attempted rapes and more than 5,000 cases of sexual assault, with the remainder including different types of online sex crimes.

We cannot just attribute that to the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and so on. Although many types of crime have declined, sexual violence in Scotland has been on the increase since 1974. Take that in.

We know that there is an issue with reporting, and the Scottish crime and justice survey of 2019-20 showed that only 22 per cent of victims/survivors of rape reported to the police. However, as much as we glean new insights, bemoan gender-based violence and condemn violence against women and girls, it will probably continue to rise unless radical action is taken.

In my short speech today, I want to explore a new theme—the threat of artificial intelligence. There has been exponential growth in the generative capacity of AI, which extends to its use in pornographic imagery. The use of superimposing faces on to nudes or even depicting women as already nude is already prevalent. Sexual acts using those images in the form of so-called deepfake images are prevalent.

Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, writing in the Westminster Parliament’s The House magazine, estimates that 96 per cent of deepfake images are pornography and that the vast majority are of women. The evidence tells us that women are targeted. She also states that the UK Government’s Online Safety Act 2023, which is an entirely reserved matter that runs to some 260 pages, does not mention women once. How can that be?

I will finish with this comment. We have a significant issue at the heart of our society, and I take comfort from my colleagues such as Ben Macpherson and Jim Fairlie, who I know frequently call on men to play their part. The sense of entitlement that some men have—“It does not affect us, so we do not need to care”—cannot be allowed to continue. I agree with Pam Gosal that it is depressing to have another debate on a matter that is getting worse rather than better.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

We should tackle violence against women all year round, but the debate provides us with the opportunity to take stock of where we have reached. It is sad that Rape Crisis Scotland is this year again having to employ a waiting list for people needing its support. Nobody should have to wait for the support of Rape Crisis, but we need to imagine a Scotland where Rape Crisis is no longer required and where violence against women does not happen.

Violence against women is a symptom of women’s inequality in society, so we need to change attitudes, we need social change and we need to stop commodifying women. We were promised legislation on commercial sexual exploitation, and I hope that the minister in summing up will let us know where the Government is with that, because if we live in a Scotland where women are commodities, we cannot possibly be equal.

We need equality on pay and wealth, and we need to stop women’s poverty being exploited through prostitution in exchange for food, clothes, drugs, alcohol and money. Criminalisation needs to target those who feed the trade, not those who are vulnerable and exploited in it. We need routes out and we need to make sure that those who are being exploited get the support that they need. They need to have jobs, security and wealth.

I pay tribute to the Women’s Support Project, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. It supports survivors of prostitution by helping, healing, empowering and advocating for them. I hope that it continues to do that for many years.

Members have talked about the trafficking of human beings. Commercial sexual exploitation feeds that market like no other. If there were no market, there would be no trafficking. We need to look at things such as saunas, online pimping and so-called adult entertainment venues. We need to stop them being allowed to operate in Scotland without any intervention whatsoever.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests with regard to speaking engagements with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It has warned that the threat that is posed to Ukrainian refugees by sex traffickers underlines the need for politicians across Europe to challenge trafficking. The OSCE also states that the countries that do not challenge sex buying experience much higher rates of trafficking.

It is obviously in the interest of people who get wealth and power from trafficking that it continues. However, it is not only the people who are trafficked who come to harm; trafficking harms the whole of society through inequality, lack of opportunity and violence against women. Any woman in a society where women are for sale is fair game, and those who are especially vulnerable, such as refugees, suffer the brunt of that.

In Sweden, where they took action and imposed the Nordic model, not only did prostitution and trafficking decrease, the gender pay gap narrowed and caring responsibilities were shared more equally. The whole of society became fairer.

The motion says:

“Imagine a Scotland without Gender-based Violence”.

I can; I am an optimist. Together, we can make that a reality.


Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

On 25 November 1960, three sisters, Patria, Minerva and María Teresa Mirabal—political activists who opposed the cruel and systematic violence of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic—were clubbed to death and dumped at the bottom of a cliff by Trujillo’s secret police. The Mirabal sisters became symbols of the feminist resistance and, in commemoration of their deaths, 25 November was declared the international day for the elimination of violence against women in Latin America in 1980. The international day was formally recognised by the United Nations in 1999. Today, we are having a debate that asks us to imagine a Scotland that is free of gender-based violence. It is 63 years later, and we are still asking ourselves to imagine it.

There will be lots to say about all the other things that have happened, but I will focus my discussion on the same area that I always do, which is the responsibility of men and boys in ending this scourge.

What does it mean to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence? What would that look and feel like? It might look like this: women not having to walk with keys in their hand; not having to have a safe word to use with bar staff; not having to worry about walking home alone or about being too provocative in the way they dress; not having to go into public toilets in pairs; not having to ensure that they are talking to someone on the phone when they are walking in a park or to stay on the phone until they get to their house; not having to cross the street to avoid males who are coming the other way; not having to feel the grip of fear in the pit of their stomach because there are footsteps behind them in the street; not having to feel scared to voice an opinion in male company; not having to feel fear about challenging misogynistic groups of males; not having to ensure that all the doors in their car are locked when they are coming to a junction; and not having to live in a parallel universe to the people who inhabit the same space as they do, be it college, work, school, the streets or even their homes. It might look like them never doubting that the people they interact with, including and especially those who are there to protect them, are safe and pose them no danger.

A man does not need to imagine all of that, because that is already our reality, so the debate is asking women to imagine what it is to live in a society without gender-based violence, because men never—or very rarely—have to factor in the same issues that are the everyday norms for women and girls.

Many factors have already been suggested as the causes of gender-based violence—such as ingrained gender inequality—but toxic masculinity is definitely one of the worst factors that we need to tackle. Individuals such as Andrew Tate are allowed to spew bile and even talk about methods of dehumanising and objectifying women and girls, and they are allowed to give lessons on how to manipulate and brutalise them with absolutely no consequences. Perhaps we need to ask whether we are allowing people such as Tate free speech or whether we are we enabling hate speech. When does it cross the line, or is free speech never hate speech, depending on your perspective on the issue, be it race, religious or misogynistic? Those are the questions that we have to wrestle with, and we should.

However, whatever the law can or cannot do, each one of us males has the ability to play a role in making our reality—one in which we have all of the freedoms that women do not—a reality for women as well.

We are seeing growing numbers of incidents of toxic, dangerous masculinity in schools and colleges and across society.

What are we males doing wrong or not doing enough of? I am happy to follow the work of White Ribbon Scotland and Zero Tolerance, which Ben Macpherson will talk about. However, as usual, the women have beaten us to the starting line. The Young Women’s Movement, and the Bold Girls Ken and Oor Fierce Girls campaigns are initiatives that young women set up to educate each other and their peers about consent and knowing what consent is. That is just one example of the stuff that is happening. I challenge their male peers. Where are the bold lads ken and oor fierce laddies campaigns? Where will the first young group of men work alongside their female peers to make their imagined realities the same?

Mr Fairlie, please bring your remarks to a close.

If they meet that challenge, all our realities will be the same.

Thank you, Mr Fairlie. As was previously advised, we have no time in hand.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

It is vital that we have this debate every year, but there is also a danger that, in the familiarity of the annual ritual, we lose the anger of activism, rest in a cosy consensus, think about the issue for 16 days and then return to the status quo. The status quo for millions of women and girls is a place of pain and horror. We must not treat gender-based violence as a stand-alone issue that is divorced from the rest of what we do. Every year, we need not just 16 but 365 days of activism, and we need to use them well.

This year, our national theme, which asks us to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence, is about our vision for this specific country, while the United Nations focus, “Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”, is about tangible action everywhere, especially economic and financial measures. We need both the vision and the bold action, and we need clarity about the breadth and depth of the work to be done.

Fantastic initiatives are happening during this year’s campaign, including much that is about survival, support and the stories that individual women share. It is crucial that we listen to those stories, but we also need to hear and learn from feminist experts about the kind of structural and policy changes that can transform the lives, safety and freedoms of women and girls.

In her award-winning book “The Political Economy of Violence Against Women”, Professor Jacqui True focuses on two key areas of potential solution: economic empowerment of women, and men changing men through positive example. I spoke about men this time last year—across a series of debates about violence against women, only a handful of our male colleagues spoke. I encourage all my male colleagues to read the email that Ben Macpherson sent to us all this morning.

This year, I want to talk about Professor True’s other focus, because gender-based violence is an economic issue on many levels. We know that poverty is both a cause and a consequence of violence, with globalised economies that treat both women and men, and the lands where they live, as mere counters in a game of toxic capitalism.

We know that violence against women is not only a matter of physical acts that are perpetrated by one individual on another but includes, within the official UN definition, economic exploitation.

Will the member take an intervention?

Maggie Chapman

I am sorry—I do not have enough time.

We know that women face violence in the workplace and in the experience of migrating for work—violence that is enabled and perpetrated through unjust and inhuman immigration and trade policies. We also know that, in the experience and aftermath of natural disaster, climate catastrophe and armed conflict, women and their children suffer the most, including from deliberate violence.

The imagined Scotland of this year’s theme would have transformed not just attitudes and behaviour—putting an end to acts of individual misogyny—but economic systems, power structures and global and environmental responsibilities. If we are to take that vision seriously, every time that we consider a policy, we must ask ourselves what effect it will have. Will it act to increase or decrease the violence that women and girls face?

I am grateful for the briefings from Close the Gap, Engender and Zero Tolerance, which set out some of the ways that we can do that. That means, within our devolved powers, looking not just at criminal justice but at the economy, social security, finance, education, health and the environment. It also means speaking boldly about reserved policy areas, especially defence, immigration and trade.

On Monday evening, I, with hundreds of others, walked through Dundee in safety and solidarity as part of this year’s reclaim the night march. Our task here is to help to reclaim not just the night, but the day and every day to come, for the women and girls of Scotland and of the world beyond.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

We already know the many existing dangers that women face in everyday life. Violence against women and girls is never acceptable, but do we, as women, really understand the dangers that we face?

Online violence against women and girls has escalated rapidly in recent years and it poses a major threat to safety and wellbeing. Technology is not something to be feared—we should embrace it—but we need to be mindful of it, as it constitutes a space where harm can be perpetrated.

The development of artificial intelligence brings a new discussion about the protection and promotion of women’s rights. Biased attitudes linked to gender roles and identities are programmed into social media platforms through automated decision making. Therefore, algorithms and devices have the potential to spread and reinforce unwanted and harmful gender stereotypes, particularly when it comes to younger men.

Research by the Open University found that 17 per cent of women in Scotland have experienced online threats, trolling, unwanted sexual remarks and other forms of abuse. The 2022 Girlguiding “Girls’ Attitudes Survey” found that 80 per cent of girls and young women between the ages of seven and 21 have seen or experienced sexism online, which is an increase from 68 per cent in 2018.

Therefore, there is a need for the Government to be proactive when it comes to technology-facilitated gender-based violence, because it takes many sinister forms. There is sextortion, image-based abuse, doxxing and cyberbullying. Those are all examples of how women can fall victim to gender-based violence. The same Open University survey showed that almost three quarters, or 73 per cent, of women in Scotland and more than half, or 55 per cent, of men want online violence to be made a crime.

The part that should concern us all is that many women and girls do not realise that they are a victim until it is too late. Sometimes, those who commit the crime are people whom women and girls should trust. Ex-teacher James Donoghue was jailed for predatory crimes after threatening two young women into having sex with him. He then posed as a modelling scout called Debzie and threatened to share unconsented filmed sexual content if the victims did not keep in contact with him or arrange to meet up. He even hijacked and hacked into a computer of one of his targets during the horrific sextortion plot.

It was Donoghue’s own girlfriend who helped the police to catch him in the act, to get him to confess to what he had done. He was handed only an eight-year prison sentence, which is not long enough in my view. The predatory behaviour shown by that vile individual will have caused unimaginable harm to the young women involved, but they are not alone. That one case shows the danger of access to filming devices and the rise of social media platforms, should someone wish to use them to inflict unimaginable harm on women and girls. Therefore, we need to get ahead of the curve when it comes to AI, because AI can impersonate and, in the wrong hands, manipulate.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to strengthening the AI ecosystem, because we need to ensure that the right safeguards are in place and that we invest in technology to ensure that women and girls cannot be exploited through that growing technology.

We have been unable to eradicate revenge porn or the online abuse that women receive, as is evidenced by the statistics. Last year alone, there were 140 domestic abuse charges relating to those offences—and those are only the ones that were reported. Underreporting of violence against women and girls has long been a concern, and I encourage anyone who has been a victim of those vile crimes to come forward and speak out. Accurate data means that we are better placed to understand. As technology advances, so do the number of risks to vulnerable people.

Today is about 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Everyone has a duty to ensure that we improve the lives of women and girls by doing everything that we can to protect them from the advancements in new technology.


Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

Together, we are talking about gender-based violence in Scotland and around the world just days after the outpouring of grief and outrage that we saw on the streets of Italy following the death of Giulia Cecchettin, a 22-year-old woman murdered by her former partner. That awful case has thrown light on reports that, on average, one woman is killed every three days in Italy. In fact, research by the UN on gender-related killings of women and girls found that, in 2022, 89,000 women and girls were killed intentionally across the globe, which is the highest yearly number of female homicides recorded in the past two decades, despite an overall fall in homicide.

Sadly, the picture here, in Scotland, is similar, with 2021-22 homicide figures reflecting that shocking and shameful reality. Although I know that good partnership work is under way in Scotland through the multi-agency taskforce that is dedicated to saving the lives of women and children, we must be clear that, although gender-based violence affects us all, men’s violence is a men’s issue and all men must do more to tackle and prevent it. Gender inequality is both a cause and a consequence of male violence against women. If destructive attitudes towards women do not change and go unchallenged by men in the home, the workplace, the gym or the pub—wherever and whenever they occur—we will never achieve the structural and cultural shift that is needed to eradicate this scourge in society.

The work of specialist organisations such as Zero Tolerance, White Ribbon Scotland and Social, Health & Education—SHE—Scotland is invaluable in documenting the lived experience of victims/survivors and ensuring that that is placed at the heart of decision making. That is why I pledge my support to campaigns for investment in effective primary prevention and to mainstreaming gender within all Scottish policy. Moreover, male politicians and parliamentarians have a responsibility and a duty to challenge and positively influence the behaviour of other men and boys, to bring about change and instigate allyship. MSPs must ask ourselves how our work affects women and girls, and, vitally, we must actively reflect on our own behaviours, beliefs and actions in order to show the collective leadership that is so desperately needed on the issue.

For some time, I have thought that it would be helpful to have a specific set of actions to guide us, which is why I have been working in collaboration with women’s organisations that have expertise in gendered power dynamics to develop 16 tangible actions that male MSPs and others can take to help tackle and prevent violence against women and girls. We all have a meaningful role to play in creating the change that is needed to tackle the multiple drivers of men’s violence and in building a Scotland where violence against women and girls is not tolerated and no longer takes place. Those 16 actions include engaging with local sports clubs and the media about the ways that they promote gender equality, as well as with local authority colleagues and Government agencies on their work to improve the safety of our streets and public places.

In addition, the Zero Tolerance report on its future tales project identifies the specific needs of marginalised women and girls from ethnic minority communities and the importance of taking an intersectional approach. I implore members to read the report and thank all the women who took part in the project for their bravery in sharing their incredibly insightful and powerful stories.

Gender-based violence does not happen just during the 16 days of activism, and work to end it must take place all year round. We can all commit to doing and saying more. The need for action and to amplify the voices of victims/survivors as well as the changes that they are calling for has rarely been so important or more urgently required. Men and boys, in particular, need to do more. The theme of the debate is “Imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence”. All men and boys should be part of making that happen.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to follow Ben Macpherson in the debate. I will start where he left off, by saying that it is important to note, from the outset, that although we mark 16 days of activism, our activism against gender-based violence must take place every day and every year.

We have heard a number of rich speeches in the debate; I hope that I will continue in that vein. I pay tribute to colleagues in the chamber who have campaigned tirelessly over many years and have worked deeply on such issues. In particular, I pay tribute to members on my party’s front bench, Pauline McNeill and Katy Clark, for their work on the matter and on the Scottish Labour Party’s consultation and subsequent report about how we tackle and end violence against women and girls, which was published at the party’s women’s conference this weekend. The report lays bare some of the challenges that are faced by women and girls and sets out some of the ways in which we can go about addressing the issues. Once again, I thank them and everyone who contributed to that work for all their efforts.

Like many of my male colleagues who have spoken this afternoon, I am clear in my mind that the burden of ending violence against women and girls cannot fall only on women and girls. Women and girls campaign actively and work tirelessly to raise the issues and often have to call out the perpetrators of the violence against themselves and share their own stories. It is important that we show them respect, stand in solidarity with them and offer them our support, but we must also be absolutely clear about the role that men must play in taking action to tackle violence against women and girls.

When I read the report that was prepared by Scottish Labour, a quote stood out for me as being critical. A respondent said:

“It is men who are missing in conversations focusing on tackling”

violence against women and

“it is men who need the courage to call out bad behaviour when they see male peers engaging in it.”

As men, we must be responsible for our actions and for ensuring that we do not engage in or perpetrate behaviour that normalises gender-based violence. Men must be responsible for calling out their friends and colleagues and they must be active bystanders when they see other men engaging in misogyny and violent behaviour.

What all the numbers that we are hearing today and all the crime figures and reporting demonstrate to me is that we must get much more serious about educating young boys about misogyny and gender-based violence, and we must do it much earlier. We need to ensure that schools have the resources and confidence to tackle such behaviour wherever it manifests, to educate both children and staff, and to ensure that female staff and students feel safe enough to report and challenge such behaviour.

I have been proud and pleased throughout my career in a council and in Parliament to support organisations such as White Ribbon Scotland. I commend White Ribbon on the work that it does to ensure that the root causes of violence against women and girls—namely, harmful and dominant misogyny—are effectively challenged. We need to change long-established attitudes and behaviours, and to take a preventative approach in order to stop violence against women and girls from occurring in the first place, rather than trying to deal with its consequences.

I close this speech where I began. I remind people that taking action on violence against women and girls does not end at the close of the 16 days of activism—it has to be an on-going effort. It has to be us, as men, who examine our own behaviours, listen to the experience of women and girls, and challenge the actions of the men around us. Only with that level of effort will we change the experiences of women and girls.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I welcome the debate on the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence international campaign.

The theme of this year’s campaign is imagining a Scotland without gender-based violence. That vision is important, but it is our deeds and our actions that count. We all have a responsibility to act and to do all that we can but, as we have heard, that is particularly so for men in our society.

As the motion recognises, addressing gender-based violence goes far beyond what public policy makers can do. It requires social change and changes in attitudes across society more generally. Without such change, the societal structures that are already in place, including within public policy, might compound issues around gender-based violence.

Public policy must set the tone and it must lead. I was privileged to invite a Glasgow-based project called financially included to Parliament today. It is run by Gemap Scotland and the Glasgow violence against women partnership and is the only project of its kind in Scotland. I thank Amber, Amy, Robin and Rosemary from the financially included project: I am pleased that they have been able to stay to listen to the debate. As they told me earlier today, the financially included project focuses on economic and financial abuse and the economic impact of gender-based violence. I have heard about the significant and meaningful impact of the work that they do and the positive difference that they have made to the lives of women who have endured gender-based violence.

The small team of four—a project manager, a training and network officer, and two welfare rights advisers who specialise in advising survivors of gender-based violence—use trauma-informed approaches and make a real difference. To date, they have supported 296 women with specialist trauma-informed welfare rights and debt advice. They have also trained 71 staff in the wider advice sector in Glasgow to spot victims of economic abuse, ask them about it and provide them with support. The team have secured £857,000 in financial gains for clients through benefit gains or debt write-offs.

Significantly, the team has also identified and supported seven women who have been subjected to gender-based violence and who were losing out on welfare support because of the heinous two-child benefit cap. Those women were supported in completing the third-child exception application in order that they could get the financial support to which they are entitled. I cannot believe that, in our society, they must do that. The UK two-child cap is, in itself, institutionalised economic abuse. It must go—no ifs, no buts and no excuses.

The economic abuse of women might be invisible to some people, but it can be devastating to the women involved. I heard examples of women being pressured by exploitative and abusive partners into taking on unsustainable and unaffordable debt, and of many other debts being accrued—for instance, rent and council tax arrears—as a direct result of economic abuse. The specialist support and work of the financially included project team identifies such economic abuse and supports women who have endured it. It fits strategically very well with the recently announced £500,000 fund to leave. The financially included project is funded by the Scottish Government’s delivering equally safe fund and will run until at least March 2025.

I hope very much that any review of the funding for organisations that deal with the consequences of gender-based violence will embed funding for projects such as financially included for the longer term, and will help to develop similar models of support elsewhere in Scotland.

Of course we all want to eradicate gender-based violence but, in the meantime, we cannot be naive. We must ensure that there is meaningful, appropriate and extensive trauma-informed support, such as that which is offered by the financially included team and others, and that it is accessible to the women who need it.

We move to the closing speeches.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. I am also pleased that there has been a great degree of cross-party agreement.

The minister highlighted the need for leadership across all parts of Government. I look forward to seeing the strategy that she said would be launched next week. Time is short today. I hope that the Parliament gets the opportunity to scrutinise that document.

Clearly, violence against women and girls is not just a Scottish issue. Understanding why it exists relates to the fundamental power relationships that continue to exist between men and women. As many members have said, attitudes need to change.

There have been many improvements in women’s position in society, and many women have won a significant degree of financial independence compared with women in previous generations.

Marie McNair and Pam Gosal spoke about the number of violent and sexual crimes against women in Scotland. That highlights that, although some things have changed, we still face significant challenges. Marie McNair also spoke about the historical tolerance of violence towards women. I think that most of us will have stories relating to that from previous generations.

Pauline McNeill spoke about the horrors of human trafficking now in Scotland and about the huge amount of work that needs to be done with boys, in schools in particular. Beatrice Wishart spoke about women’s dependence on social security, and Michelle Thomson spoke about the need for bold and ambitious changes as well as the rise in reported rapes. Many contributions have highlighted the range and scale of the challenge that we face.

Sharon Dowey spoke about the significant problems with violence against women staff in our schools and referred to this week’s NASUWT report that highlighted the rising levels of violence against women teachers in schools. We also know that there are significant increases in violence against other working women in schools, predominantly those in support roles, such as classroom assistants. There are also significant issues in other educational settings. Much work needs to be done in higher education and further education, although we have not focused on that much today.

However, today’s statement on the behaviour in Scottish schools research is timely. It is clear that we need a cross-campus strategy in schools to tackle sexism and misogyny and that the voices of girls, as well as those of women workers, need to be heard strongly when developing it.

Jim Fairlie and Pauline McNeill spoke about men’s responsibility. It is clear that changing male attitudes through our work with boys and young men has been central to today’s debate. That is vital if we are to achieve the societal change that we need.

A recent survey by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers showed that one in three women ScotRail staff said that they had been sexually harassed over the past year, but 80 per cent did not report those incidents. That highlights the challenges that we face on public transport and the need for it to be safe for women to use public transport. Trade unions have also campaigned on issues relating to safety at work in other areas—for example, Unite the union has campaigned for hospitality workers to be able to travel home safely.

In its briefing, Rape Crisis Scotland makes it clear that the six-month extension to the emergency funding that some Rape Crisis centres received during the pandemic—that funding has continued—prevented the jobs of 28 Rape Crisis workers from being lost. When I visited East Dunbartonshire Women’s Aid recently, it said that its funding from the council had been frozen for many years. In effect, that means that, year on year, there have been real-terms cuts to front-line services for women who are being subjected to abuse. Given the cuts in council funding, that position is not unusual.

We face a significant range of challenges. We need to reflect on this year’s UN theme—“UNITE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls”—to which Maggie Chapman referred, and on today’s motion, which highlights the vision of a Scotland where violence against women and girls has become a thing of the past.

I am pleased to close the debate for Scottish Labour, which is pleased to support the motion. We want to work on a cross-party basis. It is very welcome that the Parliament is united on the issue and that we have been able to have the debate in the way that we have. I hope that, as a result, we can put together a serious strategy that makes violence against women and girls part of our past.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to say that my party supports the Scottish Government’s motion on this year’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.

We have heard a broad range of powerful and compelling contributions from across the chamber. Sharon Dowey highlighted the case of a female victim whose suffering has been made worse by a justice system that is supposed to protect her. Pam Gosal spoke about the incredible work that she is doing to protect women by bringing forward proposals for a domestic abuse register. Meghan Gallacher and Michelle Thomson discussed the rapidly evolving issue of gender-based crime in the digital space. Katy Clark and Pauline McNeill spoke about the sickening acts of violence that are being inflicted on female teachers. Maggie Chapman rightly said that we need 365 days of action, not just 16. My male colleagues talked about the need for men to address our own behaviour and to challenge others—hear, hear to that.

I intend to speak about only one woman: Esther Brown. Esther’s friends say that she was generous of spirit, with a heart of gold, and that she dedicated her life to helping others. On 28 May 2021, aged 67, she opened the front door of her Glasgow flat. Jason Graham either tricked or forced his way inside. He punched, kicked and stamped on Esther’s head and body. He used a wooden chair leg as a weapon. He raped and murdered her. Her body lay undiscovered for four days. He was a registered sex offender who was supposedly under the supervision of a multi-agency public protection arrangement—a serial criminal with a long, depraved history of targeting innocent women, young and old.

A significant case review of Esther’s murder was published in April. The contents of those 60 pages are jaw dropping. It would take all afternoon to explain the breathtaking incompetence at every level of a system that is supposed to protect the public from sex offenders. There is page after page of failings. It is a system that seems to spawn perpetual meetings that achieve nothing. There are armies of obscure public agencies that appear to be collectively dysfunctional and casually complacent. There is no simple record keeping and no effective communication. It is a broken system from top to bottom. The report damns criminal justice social work, the police, the Scottish Prison Service and the national health service.

The report also generates many more questions than it answers. We learn that Jason Graham has a history of strangling women. However, when he first strangled a teenager, he was not prosecuted. The report says that the case was called in court and then mysteriously vanished. How and why did that happen? Members will not find the answers in that report. When he strangled a second teenager two years later, what happened to him? What sentence did he receive? Members will not find the answers in that report.

Just a year later, Graham inflicted a sustained attack on a 50-year-old woman in her own home. He punched, bit, kicked, strangled and raped her. At long last, having amassed many other criminal convictions, Graham was finally put behind bars. He was jailed for seven years and six months but, due to automatic early release, he was back out after less than five years. An earlier parole bid was refused because he had not taken part in a prison programme for sex offenders. However, when he was automatically released, he had still not done that. He was set free with nothing having been done to address his offending. How on earth could that be allowed to happen? Again, members will not find the answers in that report.

The report also tells us that, after his release, he was subject to a curfew, but not once did anyone turn up at his home at night to see whether he was there. He was trusted to adhere to his curfew. The report calls thatself-reporting”; I call it naive and negligent. We also learn that his curfew was eased around Christmas time. What a thoughtful gift for a predatory sex offender. What about the safety of the women in Glasgow? Who decided that any of that was appropriate and why? Again, members will not find the answers in that report.

The report says that Graham should have been issued with an electronic tag to monitor his whereabouts, but it does not say why that did not happen. It does not contain a single word about media reports that Graham was living in the community under an assumed name. Why not? Where is the curiosity?

Had Graham been put behind bars for his earlier attacks on women, would Esther Brown still be alive? According to the report, the answer is no. It states that her murder

“could not have been predicted or prevented”.

Really? Well, I am sorry, but I disagree, as do Esther’s friends.

The report exposes a catalogue of mind-blowing incompetence, but it fails to take the extra vital step and ask critical follow-up questions. It is like a page-turner novel in which the last page of every chapter has been torn out. It is sanitised. It is wilfully incurious. It smacks of protectionism. The omissions are glaring.

Fundamentally, this is about accountability—or, rather, a lack of accountability. That seems to have been allowed to become the norm in many of Scotland’s self-satisfied and self-serving public agencies.

Esther Brown should be alive today. Graham’s actions were predictable. Esther’s murder was preventable. She deserved better. The women of Scotland deserve better. God help the next woman who is targeted by a registered sex offender, of which there are almost 6,000 across Scotland.

Unless the Government acts, we will be here again: another murdered woman, another review, another report, more lessons to be learned, no accountability. And repeat.

I call the minister, Emma Roddick, to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Government. Ms Roddick, if you could take us to decision time at 5 o’clock, that would be helpful.


The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

I want to reiterate what I hope has been heard loud and clear throughout the debate from members across the chamber: the responsibility for ending violence against women and girls lies with the perpetrators of the violence—usually men—and not with the targets.

Like many women in this room and many women in society, I am a survivor of gender-based violence. Although I completely resist any suggestion that I change who I am to cater to the egos and expectations of abusive men, it is an experience that changes us. We know that the impact of those acts goes way beyond the immediate and the obvious. Every time violence against women and girls happens or is condoned, all of our safety is lessened, discrimination and other prejudices are strengthened, and we all suffer. I commend Michelle Thomson and others who have used their platform to share their experiences and have tried to prevent those things from happening to others.

I will be honest, Presiding Officer: I really struggle to imagine a Scotland without gender-based violence, because the ripple effect would be so wide ranging. What would this Parliament look like? How many women who have missed out on public life would be making change and history? To be honest, I do not even know how different I would be in such a country. That is how vast and deep the impact is.

As Rhoda Grant said, we need social change. She asked me to respond on the issue of commercial sexual exploitation, and she mentioned the likes of sex for rent in particular. That is exactly the type of exploitative, horrific and violent activity that we need to put a stop to. I know that my colleague’s focus remains on delivery of the commitment to develop a framework to challenge men’s demand for prostitution. We will see that implemented over the next year and tested in full, which could lead to further change.

Over the past few years, extensive work has gone on across the Scottish Government to identify areas in which we can make improvements to support survivors and prevent violence from happening in the first place. As an example, I note that, last year, the best start grant was changed to ensure that individuals who are fleeing domestic abuse with children get the higher rate of support that is usually available for a first child. That recognises that, although they may previously have had the items that they needed to look after their children, those may have been left behind by necessity. Importantly, the grant was also extended to families who take on responsibility for children when they are already more than 12 months old and to individuals who are granted refugee status, humanitarian protection or leave to remain under the Afghanistan or Ukraine resettlement schemes, where their other children were born before their arrival in the UK.

Recognising that a human rights culture can be an extremely strong part of wider efforts to change attitudes, I remind members that we are preparing a human rights bill that will incorporate into Scots law, as far as possible within devolved competence, four international human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I hope that the process of incorporation will provide an excellent opportunity not only to raise awareness of what everyone’s rights are and to empower them to seek help when those rights are not being realised, but to educate people that many groups, including women, are still suffering discrimination, which is often invisible, in modern Scotland. That becomes even more important when we consider the intersectional nature of gender inequalities. We know that disabled women, women from racialised minorities and LGBTQI women face multiple inequalities and barriers to access to support. Understanding that is key if our efforts to tackle those inequalities are to be successful.

Just this morning, I heard from Gypsy Traveller women how racism and dehumanising attitudes towards them and their culture seem to further stoke or are even used to excuse misogyny and violence against them, particularly online. That brings me to a point that Meghan Gallacher and others highlighted. People who were born just a few years after some members in the chamber have spent their teens facing the prospect of having videos created of them—Michelle Thomson mentioned sexual deepfakes—that cause untold damage to their self-confidence and, in the case of girls at school and girls from particular faith or racialised minority communities, loss of community when people are not sure whether the videos are real. It is only by understanding those specific, complicated barriers for people whom we all represent in our roles in Parliament that we can be allies in tackling those things.

On that point, I was very glad to receive a copy of Ben Macpherson’s 16 suggestions for action. I am already making sure that I meet them all, and I hope that colleagues in all parties will do so, too. Ben Macpherson has really embodied the point of the equally safe strategy. We know that the inequalities that we are discussing run deep. They are so deep that people often reinforce them without even realising it. It takes real reflection and acknowledgement of responsibility at an individual level to recognise and reverse that, as was discussed at Close the Gap’s equally safe at work event yesterday. Workplaces might genuinely think that they have good practice, but they will now have to show it, and in the process they might realise that they are not as on top of things as they thought.

If all of us in the Parliament follow Ben Macpherson’s lead, reflect on our roles and commit ourselves to doing things such as proactively calling out dangerous behaviours, we can make important change and even spot things that we did not pick up on before.

It was quite surreal to hear Jim Fairlie—a man—describe the violence in the everyday steps that we take to protect one other and ourselves, because it was spot on. He has done the job of considering how it feels to be a woman or girl and feel unsafe. He was right to describe what men have as a power. There is the type of power that is relayed by an unequal society—the type that is too often abused—but there is also the power that he talked about: the power to change things, call out pals and realise that men listen to men. I have had male friends pretend to be my boyfriend, brother or uncle in a bar in order to get rid of an aggressive man. I say to men, “Please notice things, as Jim Fairlie has done. Call people out and protect women. Do not leave it all to us.”

Together, we can work to make a Scotland where nobody has the job of imagining what the country would be like without gender-based violence. We can eradicate it, but we need to work together.

That concludes the debate on 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.