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Viewpoint / Ending the dereliction of duty

Peter Hamilton.

With the UN’s 16 days of Action Against Violence Against Women again upon us, our local politicians have yet to attend to their obligation to actively prevent discrimination against women and girls in Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa and Junior Up Helly Aa, writes former Anderson High teacher Peter Hamilton.

Let’s face it, Lerwick Up Helly Aa and the Junior Up Helly Aa are not one night stands; these impressive celebrations have a reach that extends across the year, reinforcing a sense of male entitlement and normalising gender inequality in our community, our schools and our families.

Over two and a half years ago, in a Shetland News opinion piece, former Brae resident, and sociology lecturer at Queen Margaret University, Karl Johnson, wrote of the: “need for greater education and public awareness on what constitutes gender discrimination, racism and how upholding the status quo can perpetuate inequality and breed animosity”.

Karl addressed Lerwick Up Helly Aa, and went on to write there was a: “dereliction of duty on the part of Shetland’s MSP, council, police force and other organisations, with regards to their responsibility to recognise and challenge this” (Everyone is entitled to equal rights; Shetland News, 16 April 2019).

In the nationally reported crime statistics, sexual crimes in Shetland increased by 85 percent in 2019/2020 compared to eight per cent nationally.  We have a markedly higher rate per head than many other comparable counties, including Orkney, Highland and Midlothian. 48 crimes. One would be too many, and we know many more go unreported.  However good our local services are, and however friendly and trustworthy our local police, women in Shetland may well be less safe than elsewhere.

Some people choose to see no connection between sexist attitudes and discrimination against women in a community, and the levels of violence that women experience there. Not so Public Health Scotland, who describe gender inequality as “a root cause of violence against women and girls”.  They forward the unequal position of women in society as a strongly associated factor, stating “violence occurs at higher levels in societies in which men are viewed as superior…”.  Just read that  gender inequality as “a root cause of violence…” bit again, before pondering Shetland’s statistics.

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The Scottish Government’s Equally Safe Strategy aims to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls by seeking to deliver “greater gender equality”, since promoting this is seen as likely to be effective in reducing health inequalities resulting from gender-based violence.

Gender inequality is therefore known to be dangerous, as I pointed out in a letter on 14 October, A safer future, (Shetland News), in which I asked our councillors, MP and MSP to familiarise themselves with the findings of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’s Unlimited Potential report, initiated by the Fawcett Society.  It shows how discrimination and stereotypes harm young people and adults, female and male.  This letter triggered two extraordinary reactions, which I will come on to later.

In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, Lisa Ward, manager of Shetland Rape Crisis (now The Compass Centre), said the case was the “sharpest point” in the pyramid of gender based violence. “But we still see all the layers of that structure in Shetland every day” (Still a ‘lot work to be done’ to address misogynistic violence, local charity says; Shetland News, 15 March 2021).

The pyramid of gender based violence Lisa describes, has, at its top, murder and rape, and, at the bottom, stereotypes, attitudes and beliefs that inform discrimination. Next up are sexist comments and verbal harassment, threats and intimidation, invasion of body space, unwelcome touching, up-skirting and physical assault.

The gender based violence at the top of the pyramid would not happen so easily if not fuelled by so much preventable stuff at the bottom.

This is why schools are not meant to educate bairns into how to be good strong laddies and subservient pretty lasses, even though Lerwick primary schools do just that when they let the Jarl Squad visit.  And this is why local authorities should not be unconditionally allowing private access to public facilities, such as the King George V Playpark in King Harald Street, to organisations that perpetuate sexist stereotypes and practice discrimination.

Readers will hopefully now understand the links between how the triangle of gender based violence, the Unlimited Potential report, Public Health Scotland’s perspective, the 2010 Equalities Act and the Scottish Government’s Equally Safe Strategy relate to Karl’s concerns about dereliction of duty on behalf of Shetland’s paid leaders.

To date, it is thought over 100 women have been killed in the UK since Sarah Everard. The number who are raped, assaulted, verbally abused is not fully recorded.  You do not stop violence against women without addressing the underlying causes.

Whilst the members of the Shetland Partnership, the community planning partnership for Shetland, including our council, police and NHS Shetland, appear to be afraid of tackling this, let us remember one thing. In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, countless women and organisations were saying this problem has been going on for far too long, and it is now for men to fix – SIC convener Malcolm Bell, for example.

The changes needed to end gender discrimination in Lerwick’s UHA and JUHA are minor. Outdated nonsense (Shetland News, 25 October 2021), and JUHA’s harmful conditioning of future generations really has to stop.  This is why Lerwick Community Council, observing the 2010 Equalities Act, no longer funds Junior Up Hella Aa, and why they can no longer organise in the Anderson High. Allowing girls in could have prevented this. Instead, fearful of diminishing numbers, they widened their age category and allowed boys across Shetland to join.

I have been in correspondence with our MP, Beatrice Wishart MSP and our councillors (three replies, one from a member of The Fawcett Society) about this. Everyone concerned should know the Scottish Government states “we believe that there are links between violence against women and girls and inequality between men and women”. (Violence against Women and Girls, VAWG).

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, COSLA, and the Scottish Government’s joint Equally Safe Strategy therefore states “we need to eliminate the systemic gender inequality that lies at the root of violence against women and girls, and we need to be bold in how we do that through prioritising a relentless focus on prevention.” (Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy to eradicate violence against women – www.gov.scot)

Bizarrely, some people see levels of violence against women, and girls in Shetland, as “not a localised issue”, so therefore local discrimination requires no further local action. Where then do assaults against Shetland’s women take place, we might ask our MSP? And in which community precisely do the local men who act thus learn to feel this is acceptable?

When I became aware the group called Women for Remain the Same had followed up on my letter to our councillors, MP and MSP, I tried to open a dialogue. As with The Up Helly Aa Committee, however, they are not up for discussion.  I then wrote again to our political leaders to point out that the dozen Women for Remain the Same are anonymous, have cast an unsubstantiated allegation at The Fawcett Society, and misrepresented their Facebook followers as members (nice photos chaps), for whom they purport to speak.

Women for Remain the Same understandably feel distressed on learning they contribute to the harm that gender stereotypes cause, through their support for the exclusion of women and girls from Shetland’s greatest event. So I can see why they did not acknowledge the fact that the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood was very well established, was chaired by a professor, that the Fawcett society enjoys support across parties in both UK Houses of Parliament.  I can see why they slurred the Fawcett Society without engaging with the Unlimited Potential report’s findings.  But, But, But…  perpetuating gender stereotypes in our community IS known to be harmful to people in our community.  This is no longer a matter of debate.

Women for Remain the Same’s response now might be to back down or back change.  If nothing else their choice of tactics should show them this, but as mothers or aunties I hope they might want their daughters and nieces to enjoy all the freedoms and opportunities they might wish for.  It is not as if anyone is telling these women to do anything different on the night. Discrimination in the name of tradition is simply no argument.

Beatrice Wishart’s letter to me quoted too much of Women for Remain the Same’s letter. Like much of her letter to me, telling me, as they told her, the number of members the Fawcett Society have (these real members, not Facebook followers, pay a real £85 a year to support equal rights for women) is nothing to do with the validity of the report’s findings that stereotypes are harmful, or indeed, the matter at hand. As for her and their requirement that there be ”evidence to demonstrate a causal link between Up Helly A’ and violence” against women and girls in Shetland, well, let’s face it, she, and they cannot prove there is none.

So yes, Women for Remain the Same and then Beatrice both used that same phrase “evidence to demonstrate a causal link between Up Helly Aa and violence” in their correspondence.  It is difficult to know just what would satisfy her and them, but Beatrice has now been reminded of the relevant cases within the saddening #WisToo testimony.  She, and they, whoever they may be, are therefore now entirely welcome to tell the whole community that telling boys they are better than girls has nothing to do with anything.

Our MSP’s position, as articulated to me, which now clearly supports this exclusion of women and girls, is fairly hard to reconcile with her position as a trustee of Shetland Women’s Aid, given their mission statement nationally is:

“Our vision is a Scotland with no domestic abuse, where women, young people, and children enjoy all their human rights and have equal opportunity to explore all their ambitions and aspirations.”

There may be something in this for Women for Remain the Same to ponder.

Would Beatrice but take the lead that should be expected of Liberal Democrats, more people locally might feel inclined to risk the social consequences that follow speaking up on this issue. Her party is committed to “opposing discrimination wherever it occurs”, (Policy paper 142, September 2021)

Shetland Islands Council are, of course, entirely welcome to ask their lawyer to find grounds to continue to allow them to stick to their existing policies, irrespective of how other lawyers might interpret the legislation.  What a gutless waste of time that would be though.  We all know that Shetland Islands Council should not be allowing women and girls to be banned from participating in an event that requires access to a local play park. Neither should they allow a body that discriminates against women and girls to be selling tickets for an after party in Lerwick’s Town Hall.

So, what to do now, when words and obligations are so easily ignored? What to do when efforts at dialogue are fruitless, when elected representatives are mouthless, and unaccountable groups silent? What to do when the Shetland Partnership’s Local Outcomes Improvement Plan overlooks the presence of discrimination so blatant it threatens to bring Shetland’s name increasingly into disrepute?

What to do, particularly when to speak out against an aspect of what is otherwise a pretty amazing event, risks social exclusion?

Well, plainly our ruling classes know better than we, so it is time to step back as one and let the decades go rolling on.  As loyal subjects of King George V and his descendants, there is surely no need to contemplate what more might be done when words fail. Instead, we should meekly trust those better placed to understand all this.

But is it really too much to expect our councillors to set some expectations for groups seeking to use public facilities such as the burning site, our schools and Toon Hall?  After all, there is a legal duty on them to adhere to the Mainstreaming the Public Sector Equality Duty, the guidance on which says: “equality should be a component of everything an authority does”.

Shall we end with a little laugh? Guess who, in 2019, said:  

“What now needs to happen is a change to the ingrained, centuries-old, patriarchal views of women and girls in our society, and the unconscious bias that starts when we are born. It cannot happen overnight.

“The parliament has an important role to play, and members have a collective responsibility to lead and change, however that may be. We need to ensure there are never any unintended, adverse consequences for women and girls. No one should be subjected to violence.” (Wishart says ‘patriarchal’ views of women and girls must change, Shetland News, 28 November 2019)

“Lead”, “however that may be”, “ensure there are never any unintended consequences for women and girls” What, south of Fair Isle, Beatrice?  It appears our MSP actually does appreciate the link between sexist attitudes, discrimination and violence, but only when she is speaking in Edinburgh.  Pffff.  On second thoughts, given the issue we are addressing, there is little to be laughed about here.

Effective changes can be triggered overnight. It just requires our leaders to call time and act to remove discrimination that informs attitudes that underpin the levels of violence against women in our community.  It is time they were responsive to complaints first voiced in the 1970s.  Their dereliction of duty is laid bare.  There is no longer room for denial.

And what of the handful of all too real men within The Committee directly intent on resisting change, who our politicians are seemingly so fearful of? Are these the same men who want our approval now they no longer think it is OK to ridicule other men by painting their faces black, but still think it is OK to ridicule women by wearing false breasts…?  Just one question for you lot: what kind of society do you want for your daughters and granddaughters?

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