Written by Claire Houghton
Today dozens of children and young people are leading an event at the Scottish parliament that honours and amplifies the voices and activism of young people, including young survivors of gender-based violence. They are meeting and talking with parliamentarians, ministers and national leaders in justice, police, education, health, and social work responses. Today is a celebration of the strength, resistance and power of young survivors. It is also a call to action, and young people are presenting their priorities for action to address gender-based violence and gender inequality.
The event is testament to two consistent trends in Scottish government and politics since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as part of the UK devolution settlement: first, a demonstrable commitment to wider inclusion and participation; and second, the prioritisation of policies to address domestic abuse and gender-based violence (Mackay 2010). In part, these twin features are the result of the mobilisation of organised women’s and feminist groups in the run up to devolution and their efforts to build equality ‘in with the bricks’ of the new institutions.
Over the last few years, children and young people have also been increasingly included in political spaces and processes, through innovative programmes (Houghton 2018), the latest of which is the Everyday Heroes Participation Programme. The Scottish Government established a participation partnership to ensure that children and young people, especially young survivors of gender-based violence, participated in their plan of action ‘The Equally Safe Delivery Plan’. The Everyday Heroes programme asked children and young people about their priorities for government action around the questions:
- What would improve the journeys of young abuse survivors through services and the justice system?
- What could help improve societal attitudes and people’s lives in relation to gender equality?
At this year’s #HearMeToo debate in Scottish Parliament, the Everyday Heroes programme was widely referred to. Minister Christina McKelvie said, “Voices of children are important, Everyday Heroes made sure we listened to them in our Delivery Plan, looking forward to meeting them…”
Creative mediums and the arts were key to the engagement sessions undertaken with skilled support workers known and trusted by the young participants, ensuring participation was part of their therapeutic process (Houghton 2015). Young and adult experts, partners in a wonderful collaboration between feminist and children’s rights organisations, created ways to safely explore the ‘stepping stones’ young survivors take through services and the justice system, the ‘inside out’ emotions felt in their journeys, the light bulb ideas they have for change. Detailed recommendations have been crafted for improvements in service delivery, the response of the justice system, and ways to tackle harmful gender stereotypes and norms.
Stories told through the Everyday Heroes programme tell us that silence and stigma not only allows violence against women to escalate but the abuse of children to go unnoticed. The status of being a child, on top of being an unacknowledged victim of gender-based violence, silences the young survivor. They are sometimes terrified of speaking out, fearing that their age is a key deciding factor in adults believing them. The default position of many professionals, furthermore, is to notify the parents, even when the child has disclosed abuse from their father; or to panic when a child discloses sexual abuse. The child’s voice gets lost, the child’s abuse often continues and escalates, the child’s story remains untold. Many, many years later some amazing young survivors have told their stories of consequence, resistance and anger, often with the support of specialist organisations – but far, far later than needed.
“I spoke to a police officer when I was six. But they dropped it. The police thought I was too young to know any of that…”
Impunity is something which frustrates young survivors; that even when they report and seek legal redress, the abuser is often free to further abuse them. Abuse can continue through proceedings – for example in court and in car parks, and through outcomes – poor sentences or being ordered to have unsafe contact with an abusive father. Young victim and survivors have been further traumatised, felt ‘recovery’ was delayed hugely and that they have been made to feel culpable (along with their mothers in domestic abuse contact cases) so argue for quicker, safer, more child-friendly access to justice.
“I got a screen in court to protect me from him as I’m scared of him but now I have to fight to not have contact with him, why?”
Today’s event in Parliament continues Scotland’s tradition of dialogue between young survivor/activists and policymakers and underlines that such dialogue needs to be sustained and meaningful (Houghton 2018). Bringing children’s and young people’s stories to light challenges an often adult-centric discourse surrounding domestic and sexual abuse and violence. The programme reaffirms feminist challenges to the heteronormative male power. And it promotes an intersectional approach to gender equality and gender-based violence, and the effects of gender norms on boys as well as girls, and on non-binary young people. It is an appeal to us all to be both women and children’s human rights defenders.
Dr Claire Houghton is the Everyday Heroes Programme Coordinator working alongside young and adult expert partners from the University of Edinburgh IMPACT project, Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament. The programme was funded by the Scottish Government to inform and influence the Equally Safe Delivery Plan. Celebrating Everyday Heroes follows a Parliamentary Debate (27th November 201) on #Hear Me Too and is part of many 16 Days activities to promote the voices of women, children and young people.