Orcadian Column, 02 December 2021

Sitting in the Presiding Officer chair last Wednesday afternoon, I listened in horror as SNP MSP, Michelle Thomson told the Chamber how she was raped as a young girl. With astonishing composure and candour, Michelle went on to explain the devastating effect this had on her at the time and the subsequent difficulties she faced forming healthy relationships.

Conservative MSP, Alexander Stewart then revealed the traumatic impact of the violence inflicted by his father on his mother, who was forced to flee the family home with her three young children.  It was to lead to her death in due course, but for years, Alexander said, his mother accepted the abuse and blamed herself.

The debate, which was both moving and deeply unsettling, marked the start of 16 Days of Action to tackle gender-based violence around the world. Now in its 30th year, sadly the need for this campaign appears greater than ever, with femicide rates in Scotland on the increase despite an overall drop in homicides.

High profile cases, such as the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and Nicole Smallman are seared into the public consciousness. The grim reality, though, is that many more murders, assaults and acts of violence on women and girls do not capture the headlines or gain wider attention. Indeed, many assaults are never even reported to police for fear of repercussions or, as Alexander Stewart described it, the victim’s belief that somehow she is to blame.

In part, perhaps, this stems from the fact that most violent attacks are perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner. Official figures suggest that nine out of ten people who have experienced serious sexual assault said they knew the attacker in some way.

And as Michelle Thomson testified, the effects can be profound, long-lasting and too often fatal. Experiencing violence or abuse can lead to trauma, impacting on everything from mental and physical health and wellbeing to employment and educational outcomes. In opening the debate, the Minister, Shona Robison reminded the Chamber that these issues arise from a fundamental inequality between the sexes, which has damaging consequences for the individual but also wider society and our economy.

The effects are obviously felt directly by women and girls, but this is a problem created by men and boys. The central message of the White Ribbon campaign, of which I’m proud to be a local ‘ambassador’, is that while most men do not commit violence against women, all men have a role to play in ending it. Individually and collectively we can pledge not to commit, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women.  In this effort, we need to be ‘active’ allies.

And this may involve more self-reflection than we appreciate. Police Scotland’s ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ social media campaign demands men change the way we talk to and about women, highlighting that abuse often starts long before we realise it does.

In rural and island communities there can also be added challenges. Raising concerns and removing yourself from danger is often more difficult, while gathering forensics previously involved survivors having to fly south for examination. Thankfully, that is no longer the case, at least for adults.

Even so, Orkney Rape and Sexual Assault Services and Women’s Aid Orkney report a large increase in recent referrals. This may reflect a greater willingness to report abuse, yet we know Covid restrictions and lockdowns have increased the risk for those for whom home is far from a place of safety.

So raising awareness locally is crucial and it’s been great to see the Cathedral lit up orange, individuals and businesses pledging support and Peedie Birds, the symbol of the campaign in Orkney, starting to pop up here and there. As well as commending ORSAS, WAO and all involved, I’d also pay tribute to Chloe Wooldrage for her initiative, Tak A Stand. This project has certainly prompted conversations and given many women and girls in Orkney the confidence to come forward to share their own experiences. Those stories make for uncomfortable reading and should convince all of us not to be bystanders but to ‘tak a stand’ in ending harassment, abuse and violence against women and girls.

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