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Eilidh Dickson is Policy and Parliamentary Manager at Engender, Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation.

The 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an opportunity to focus on what we are doing – and what more needs to be done – to eradicate violence against women.

In Scotland, we are rightly proud of some of the steps which have been taken towards preventing violence against women: Scotland’s Equally Safe strategy, which is co-owned by Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland, recognises the fact that men’s violence against women is a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality; Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act has been hailed as world-leading; and the Scottish Government has established an independent working group to examine how to best approach crimes motivated by misogyny within the criminal justice system

There is, of course, still much to be done to prevent violence against women, and ensure access to justice for victim-survivors of abuse and sexual violence, and the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on this. Preventing and eradicating violence requires serious action to secure women’s social, economic and cultural equality and the rights of women and girls, and UN Women has estimated that the impact of Covid-19 for women’s equality could mean the loss of 25 years’ worth of progress. Scotland is not immune to this. Measures to respond to the pandemic have disproportionately affected women’s access to paid work – especially younger women and women of colour – and the volume of care that women provide. Polling has shown that women in Scotland experienced greater job insecurity, vastly more unpaid care work, and worse mental health than their male counterparts.

We also saw the pandemic have an impact on women experiencing domestic abuse and coercive control, with Scottish Women’s Aid showing that the majority of centres experienced increases in demand, or changes in the support requested. Although Scottish Government regulations included seeking support for violence against women as a permitted reason to leave home during lockdown, that was not always been clear to agencies, the public, and particularly women impacted by violence.

Access to justice for victim-survivors of men’s violence is still a serious issues. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, causing widespread disruption to court proceedings, victim-survivors in Scotland faced procedural delays of up to two years. The backlog is now estimated to be around nearly 50,000 trials delayed because of the pandemic. These protracted delays mean even greater stress for victim survivors, impact on their ability to give evidence, and reduce already low levels of confidence in the criminal justice system.

There are some positive policy changes on the horizon, however. While the final recommendations of the working group on misogyny are yet to be released, there has been a recognition that an ineffective criminal justice approach to misogynistic harm, such as current hate crime legislation, underplays the severity and scale of misogyny faced by women in Scotland. Harassment in public space – including street harassment and online abuse – has also been identified as a key gap in justice responses which needs examining.

Violence against women is an issue of human rights, and just before the May 2021 election, the then Scottish Government announced its intention to bring in a new human rights bill in the next parliament that would serve as a new human rights framework for Scotland. Alongside this, there has been cross-party commitment to the incorporation of CEDAW, the UN Bill of Rights for Women, into Scots Law.

Incorporating the convention into Scots Law will allow women to rely on its provisions in in devolved areas from health to criminal law to planning and transport. Although while the UK Government continues to express no interest in incorporation, even the most maximalist approach will only apply to devolved areas, offering no opportunity to enhance protection or challenge UK decisions on pensions or immigration rules that lead to starkly unequal outcomes for women and men.

A new incorporation Act in Scotland will create a dedicated Scottish human rights framework placing CEDAW alongside other treaty rights including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in a single bill. This will make the indivisibility and mutual reinforcement of these rights clearer and easier and is one of the reasons why Engender pushed hard to avoid a piecemeal process to incorporation that would relegate some treaties to a later date.

Of course incorporation is not a silver bullet to ending women’s rights violations – waiting for breaches to occur is insufficient even when we need the ability to challenge them, and we know that courts and tribunals remain littered with access to justice issues for women. It must be coupled with strong implementation of the new human rights framework which prevents breaches occurring in the first place, creating gender equality through and within the development of law, policy and implementation. However, the incorporation process is an opportunity for Scotland to cement progress on women’s equality, providing an underpinning for work like the recommendations from the misogyny working group or the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, now in its third reporting year.  

Violence against women is not an inevitability, and the 16 days provide us with the chance to reaffirm our commitment to fight for a Scotland, and a world, where women’s equality is a reality.