Bristol Women’s Commission criticises council for failing to act to protect women and girls in the city

Bristol City Council has this week renewed the licenses of two Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) in the city – ignoring the voices of women and girls and showing complete disregard for its duties under the Equality Act, says Bristol Women’s Commission (BWC).

The decision comes as the latest report says fundamental cross-system change is urgently needed to tackle an ‘epidemic of violence against women and girls’, a call echoed by local Police Crime Commissioner Mark Shelford. It follows a 2020 Citizens Panel Survey in which just 28% believed that SEVs had a place in the city; and comes ahead of a consultation on a proposed ban on strip clubs in Bristol.

The Council currently allows up to three SEVs in the city, BWC wants to see a nil-cap introduced, as has been done in many other cities and towns in the UK. A consultation is due to launch this autumn; in the meantime, Central Chambers and Urban Tiger – which were closed for most of 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic – have been relicensed until September 2022.

BWC, which is made up of representatives from the police, NHS, schools, colleges and universities and charities which support survivors of gender-based violence, said that SEVs encourage the sexual objectification or women that can, and does, lead to violence against women and girls. In licensing them, the council is sanctioning harmful gender norms when it should instead be helping men and boys in the city to challenge sexist cultures.

As outlined in the meeting papers, the Council must ensure that the need to promote equality is taken into consideration with regard to every aspect of its decision-making. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, the Council has legal obligations to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment of women, and to advance equality of opportunity for women as well as to foster good relations between men and women. Strip clubs stand in the way of this.

The licensing sub-committee meetings, with Cllr Marley Bennett (Lab), Cllr Fi Hance (Green), Cllr Lorraine Francis (Green) and Cllr Emma Edwards (Green) who recently replaced Cllr Mohamed Makawi (Green) on licensing, ignored 67 objections from women and community leaders, as well as evidence put forward by BWC and partners – which includes charities on the frontline of supporting survivors of sexual and domestic violence in the city. The evidence highlighted the the established link between sexual objectification of women and violence against women and girls. They chose to instead rule in favour of the club owners and their lawyer.

“The Council had a real chance to take a stand against gender inequality this week, to tackle the harmful gender norms which lead to violence against women and girls and it chose to instead bow to pressure from an industry that promotes and profits from this,” said BWC Chair Penny Gane, speaking after the licensing hearings on Friday 17 September.

SEVs not only create no go areas for women in the city, but they promote sexual objectification of women. The link between sexual violence and men’s objectification of, feelings of entitlement towards and dominance over women is well-evidenced. While not all men who hold these attitudes towards women perpetrate sexual violence, all sexual violence begins with these attitudes.

8 out of 10 young women having experienced sexual harassment in a public space, at least one in three women experience male violence at some point in their lives and a woman is killed by a man every three days

Penny, who previously gave a passionate speech at full council urging councillors to rid the city of strip clubs in the interests of gender equality, said: “Study after study shows how endemic violence against women and girls is, with repeated calls for action to tackle this. Strip clubs elicit and require direct expressions of male domination and control over women. In prioritising the interests of two strip clubs, the Council is contributing to the problem rather than taking steps to address it.”

BWC exists to help ensure gender-equality is at the heart of decision-making in Bristol. Its campaigns have helped boost the number of women councillors; its contributions ensured that women’s health needs feature in city plans; and its actions contributed to closing the gender pay gap. But more is needed to achieve gender equality.

Penny added: “The continued licensing of SEVs by Bristol City Council disregards the safety of women and girls and diminishes the status of Bristol as a place where both women and men can lead fulfilled lives in a safe and fair society.”

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