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Primary prevention: Zero tolerance

In this interview, Dr Lesley Orr describes the origins and impact of Zero Tolerance Scotland’s first ground-breaking violence against women
Thinking about the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, there was a conservative government. Of course there was no Scottish Parliament at the time. And what that government were focusing on was really issues of crime prevention and law and order. And that was their whole kind of approach and so on. And also what was developing politically in Scotland through the ’80s and into the ’90s was that local authority councils started to establish women’s committees. And that was the case in Edinburgh. And their first initiative, I think, really was to survey or to conduct a fairly kind of extensive questionnaire among women in Edinburgh just saying, what are your issues? What are your priority concerns?
And two of the things that came back very strongly were violence against women and, more generally, women’s safety. And at the same time, the women’s committee had instigated a kind of research project with young people in some secondary schools in Edinburgh, again just to ask them what their attitudes were. What they thought about violence against women and so on.
And it was rather concerning the results that came back from that survey of young people indicated that boys and young men, and also young women to a large extent, thought that violence against women, like hitting your partner, was acceptable particularly if you were married to her, but if you had that kind of relationship that it was like in a normal aspect and something that you might expect when you formed relationships. And over 50% of young men were saying that was OK to hit your partner or to really coerce her to have sex.
So armed with this information and in the wider context of the kind of Tory government’s approach to violence against women, which was really to say, woman, this is your problem. In order to sort out or to address the problem that you’re concerned about, which is violence and your safety on the streets and in other places, you have to stop going out at night. You have to put locks on your doors. So what they were really saying– the message, this kind of powerful message was that, OK, violence against women is a problem caused by men’s behaviour. But it’s a problem that women are supposed to be expected to solve.
What the women’s committee decided to do was really a very innovative approach, which was to say let’s fund a six-month public awareness campaign because we need to change the script. We need to change this kind of public perception, the publicly kind of normal story, of what constitutes violence against women and how as a society we respond to it. They very carefully developed this six-month campaign doing a lot of preparation.
Because they recognised and identified that mass media was absolutely key to how you tell the story, they wanted to ensure that it was the best quality and that it was really effective, public marketing communications. And they brought on board a feminist photographer, Franki Raffles. And Franki took a series of images, black and white images, which were designed so that women were not shown as victims but as kind of empowering in their everyday situations and were juxtaposed with them were very powerful, quite confrontational messages, very challenging messages saying this is the reality of domestic abuse. This is what happens. This is the truth about sexual violence and conveying this message that no man has the right.
That was really the key message, with the Z, that logo, a very distinctive Z logo. And so the first part of this public campaign was a six-month– these four posters which appeared all across the city backed up by regular articles in the local evening paper and supported by a range– they mobilised quite a wide, broad range of civic and trade union, churches, sports organisations to back up this campaign. It had quite a profound impact. It really made its mark on the city. Women felt supported and empowered and encouraged.
They appreciated seeing themselves reflected in these images but not as victims, not as kind of nameless, beaten up victims, but as strong women, diverse women, and women who were not at fault. And of course one of the things then that happened was that organisations like Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis did notice a very substantial increase in folk contacting them for support and for services. But the other thing that made the impact clear, I think, was how quickly it spread. Other local authorities in Scotland and across the UK seized on this, saw that it was an effective tool for communication, and developed their own Zero Tolerance campaigns in local areas. You know, a lot has changed.
A lot has been achieved through the work of the Zero Tolerance campaign and all its allies and everybody working across sector. And there have been very marked transformations in policy and in legislation, in the way that the police act, partnership approaches at local levels. All of that is good. But there will always be an issue with resourcing and funding. A broader social level, I think, if you look at the situation in Scotland and globally, we see very clearly the challenge and the necessity for vigilance and persistence. The message of Zero Tolerance 25 years ago remains as pertinent as ever, maybe more so. I mean, as an organisation, Zero Tolerance is commemorating its 25th anniversary, so looking back.
And that message that the Tories were giving to women back in the day about this is your– you’ve got to take care of yourself. You’ve got to make sure that you’re safe. Well, young women in places like this, universities, anywhere, are still hearing that message conveyed to them. The positive thing, I think, looking back over these 25 years, in a Scottish context certainly, is seeing how many good people are committed and passionate about this work and really making a difference in local situations and in particular contexts and just keep on keeping on with that.
And if that is supported by the political, the policy, the funding, and the kind of broader cultural analysis and environment, then that all be to the good.

In this interview, Dr Lesley Orr a feminist historian/activist based at the University of Edinburgh describes the origins and impact of ‘Zero Tolerance’, Scotland’s first ground-breaking violence against women public prevention campaign which was launched in 1992.

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