Last Monday a clause of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) came into effect, placing the Prevent Duty Guidance for seven sectors of the public services on a statutory footing. Local authorities, schools, further education, higher education, the health sector, prisons and probation have joined the police in having a legal duty to safeguard persons from radicalisation, be it through challenging the narratives of radical preachers and political ideologues who argue that violence is acceptable, or through tackling exposure to beheading videos or other violent images online that normalises such barbaric behaviour.
The government hope this legislation will stem the flow of British citizens to Syria, and hlep prevent the kind of home-grown terror attacks witnessed recently in Paris and Copenhagen. At least 700 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join IS in the last few years, but fortunately there has not been a violent incident on the British mainland since the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013.
As well as this legislation, the government is currently engaged in a public and media campaign to change the terms of the debate on radicalisation, with David Cameron urging people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’ and calling on communities to do more to tackle the extreme ideologies that allow violent ones to emerge (as I discussed in my last blog post).
Even if you don’t agree with the methods (and as someone working in education I have a lot of concerns about the co-option of teaching and support staff into an anti-radicalisation agenda through apparently ‘pre-criminal’ safeguarding), the rationale behind this policy is clear to see. No one wants to continue reading stories about teenage girls leaving their families to join the brutally-murderous IS, and no one wants to see death and destruction on the streets of Britain.
However, there are other ideas and violent images that are prevalent in our society, creating a framework within which violence on a massive scale is perpetrated against Britons. Children are often exposed to violent material online at a young age, and the environment in schools, workplaces and the media all work together to reinforce these messages and make the violence permissible.
I am, of course, talking about violence against women. The web is awash with violent pornography which many children are regularly viewing, sexism is rife in schools and the workplace, sections of the media are imbued with a misogynistic relish, and a pervasive climate of derision and disrespect has been tracked by projects like Everyday Sexism.
The violence this leads to is both extensive in scale and extreme in its consequences. A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 reported that a third of all women had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, while 694 women were murdered in the UK between 2011 and 2014, nearly half of them by a current or former partner. Such figures dwarf the violence committed in the name of radicalism, whether inspired by an interpretation of Islam or a far right ideology (both of which are targeted in the Prevent strategy).
Prevention is part of the government policy regarding violence against women, but at times it seems like it is an after-thought, secondary to the main drive to increase the rate of prosecution after such violence has been committed, or taken seriously only as part of the attempt to protect the most vulnerable people in society from abuse and exploitation. These are of course welcome measures and necessary goals, but action to prevent the ubiquitous violence against women should be central to our politics, not an after-thought.