The skies around Westminster are grey, but not even the clouds threatening rain could dampen the spirits of these determined campaigners.
Refuge, the UK’s biggest domestic abuse charity, descended on Parliament to call on the government to include mandatory education on all forms of domestic abuse among 16-19-year-olds.
The charity, along with its celebrity supporters and ambassadors, Sharon Gaffka, Chanita Stephenson and Cosmopolitan UK’s digital cover star, Saffron Hocking took to the Palace of Westminster with placards to raise awareness about domestic abuse and coercive control with Make It Mandatory.
Make it Mandatory (MiM) is a campaign founded by university student and survivor of domestic abuse, Faustine Petron. Its aim is to change government policy in terms of providing said education to college and sixth-form students as a preventative measure.
Petron decided to set up a petition on Change.org after reflecting on her experiences of abuse and the justice system whereby she noticed critical gaps in the education system. Namely that relationships and sex education (RSE) was not being taught to this age group, despite them being significantly at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and coercive control.
"We need to make sure 16 to 18-year-olds are covered in education," Petron told Cosmopolitan UK at the protest. At the moment, the policy is quite difficult, because relationship and sex education is capped at Key Stage 4, which ends at 16 years old. We know from different statistics and the research we did with Refuge that this age group is really vulnerable to domestic abuse and coercive control.
"We strongly believe if the government raises the age of RSC and covers 16 to 18 year olds, it could act as a preventative measure to make sure young people are informed about coercive control, healthy relationships, sex education, and come out of sixth form as healthy, well-rounded young people."
Research from the Office for National Statistics highlighted that women aged 16 to 19 report more domestic abuse than those aged over 25. Elsewhere, the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 2.4 million adults (approximately 1.7 million women) experienced domestic abuse in 2022.
Polling conducted by Opinium for Refuge last year also revealed that a third (30%) of young women could recount some form of controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship. But, when shown a list of potential behaviours that could be classed as coercive, the number of women who could answer 'yes’ to having encountered it rose to over half (51%).
Meanwhile, Opinium’s research showed only 47% of 16-19-year-olds said that they had received or were due to receive the education at their sixth form or further education college.
Gaffka, who has been an active campaigner following her stint on Love Island in 2021, believed her own sex education was lacking during her time at school.
"My parents weren’t the type of parents I could have those sorts of conversations with either," she explained. "So I had to overcome a lot of these challenges myself.
"Fourteen years, and it seems nothing has really moved on at all. I think young people have a very distorted view of what sex and relationships look like because of things in the media and what they’re witnessing online.
"Creating a safe space for young people to talk about these things will help people have healthy relationships when they’re older. It's time young people got the sex education they deserve."
On the 5th of July this year, the Women and Equalities Committee backed Refuge and MiM’s campaign and formally recommended the extension of compulsory RSE to young people in post-16 educational settings to the Department of Education. As of now, hence a further reason for Refuge and MIM taking to Westminster today.
In addition to raising public awareness with Refuge on the day, MiM will be individually green-carding their MPs to encourage them to back compulsory RSE education. This involves queuing at the information desk in Parliament’s central lobby, collecting, and then filling in a ‘green card.’
After handing the card to the information desk, they’ll be able to inform you whether or not your MP is currently in the House of Commons. If they’re available, they are obliged to come and meet you. Should the MP be unavailable, your green card will act as a meeting request, meaning they’ll need to write to you to share their views on the matter. (Plus, hopefully, what they plan to do to meet the demands of your appeal).
Speaking to Cosmopolitan UK, Refuge ambassador Saffron Hocking stressed the importance of RSE extension, after she reached out to the charity while researching and educating herself as part of a role's domestic abuse storyline. "It really should be taught in the places you're really doing your growing up – in school. You're learning maths, science – why can't we learn the life skills that are treating other people – women – right?
"We learn about a plethora of subjects, and how to tackle domestic abuse should be one of them."
Hocking also offered a stark reminder that, "unfortunately, so many women have experienced [abuse] in some form, but many of us didn't or don't necessarily have the tools to articulate it."
Ruth Davison, CEO of Refuge adds: "Despite being made a crime in 2015, we know that coercive and controlling behaviour is still not widely understood. We only need to look at the low rate of conviction and the difficulty in proving an abuser has acted in this way to know that more needs to be done to help educate the public on what coercive control is and the damaging impact it has on survivors."
Ultimately, providing such education to post-16 students and giving them the opportunity to learn these essential life lessons can often be the difference between someone experiencing abuse in a relationship and knowing when to call out a behaviour for what it really is.
If you would like to sign and send Refuge’s automated letter to MP Gillian Keegan, which explains the importance of RSE education - and calls for its mandatory integration into the sixth form curriculum - you can do so here.
Additionally, if you want to write a letter to your MP to back the campaign (which is advised, due to it providing a written record that can be referred to at a later date), it’s really simple to do. The UK Parliament website has a whole how-to guide on the subject here, which can help clear up any confusion, from ‘who is my MP?’ to ‘how do I contact my MP?’
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