don’t normally have any problems talking. In fact, a friend fairly recently described me as being able to “talk the hind leg off a donkey- and back on again!”. Whilst I’ve never attempted donkey surgery, it is true that I am very proud of my Guiding names. Whilst my Brownies know me as Brown Owl, certain of the leaders know me as “Rent-a-Gob”. Honour like that is hard won – I want to put it on a business card!
Bizarrely though, the last couple of days have been emotionally – well, strange. Stranger than normal, anyway. On Wednesday, I spoke at a small service held by my incredible and wonderful church (no, the vicar isn’t paying me!) to mark the 16 Days of Activism on Gender Violence. Unusually for me I shared some of my own story and experience as well as that of a very dear friend, sadly killed by an honour killing. I’ve basically told this story in person once – I’ve written about it, but speaking about it (and trying to retain composure!) was a lot harder, and it’s left me feeling a little drained. Friends who asked me how it went mostly got a hissed “never again!”
But then. Then I read the 2014 Girls Attitudes Survey. It’s a piece of research done every year by Girlguiding UK, exploring the attitudes of girls and young women to various different issues. This year, they asked about violence against women. I’m not one for statistics, largely because mention of maths makes me come out in hives, but here are some truly frightening ones.
1200 girls and young women between 7 and 21 were surveyed. Over a third of 11-21 year olds knew someone who had been subject to controlling or abusive behaviour from a partner. 3 in 5 of the 13-21 year olds have experienced sexual harrassment at school or college in the last year. One in 5 have experienced unwanted sexual attention, with one in 7 reporting this as frequent. All told, a staggering 59% of the 13-21 year olds have experienced some form of sexual harrassment.
And here’s the frightening thing. They were then asked whether or not they reported this. 64% reported being told to ignore it by teachers – it was dismissed as “just boys mucking around”.
I got into a conversation yesterday. One of those irritating ones. where you work out what you want to say 30 minutes after the opportunity to say it. I was talking to someone who was telling me her experience of domestic violence – violence so severe she fled to Greece to escape it. And when I said I was truly sorry she’d been through that, she said this –
“Oh well. I mean, it happens to everyone, doesn’t it? It’s just normal.”
And this is what I should have said..
No. No, it’s not normal. It might be common, but it’s not normal.
Normal? Normal is someone treating you for who you are. Normal is someone recognising the incredible value you hold as a human being, and honouring, respecting and loving that. Normal is a relationship of mutual equality and mutual responsibility.
And yet, normal for so many of our young people is harrassment, sexism, and abuse. And we sit and wonder why we have an endemic gender violence problem, when right from the very beginning we’re ocnditioning our young people to believe that girls are either delicate little flowers or objects to be possessed, and boys are macho idiots who just can’t help themselves.When we buy into crap like this, we do everyone a disservice. We underestimate the intelligence of the boys and the strength of the girls. And so the lie continues.
And it’s things like this that give me the impetus to fight. Because we can enact laws, but until we change attitudes, there will always be a way round them. And yet when we stand up and yell, when we truly tell our young women that they are beautiful and precious, when we open the cupboard and let the scary and shameful secret out – that’s when we’re gonna change things.
For me, it’s crystallised a resolution. There is probably quite a lot I need to shut up about – but this will never be one. Though it’s painful and agonising, I’ll keep shouting, keep sharing, until people really get that there is hope.
Abuse is not normal. Oppression is not normal. What happened to me, what happened to Amira – this isn’t normal. And we don’t have to accept it. Actually, we have a duty not to. To unleash that divine spark of discontent until the whole world sits up and takes notice.
Keep agitating. Keep fighting. Keep going. It doesn’t have to be like this. And when we let it happen, when we stay silent, when we refuse to get involved because “it’s not my problem?”. That’s when we become part of the problem.
Here’s to being the solution!