Primary Prevention of Violence Against Women

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is endemic in Scotland and has devastating physical and psychological consequences for women and girls as well as their families and communities. Primary prevention is a core objective of the Scottish Government and COSLA’s Equally Safe Strategy, Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating VAWG.

Engender’s Delivering Equally Safe (DES) project highlights the importance of mainstreaming primary prevention throughout all areas of public policy, including those beyond education, justice and equalities where work on VAWG has typically been concentrated.

What is Primary Prevention?

A primary prevention approach to VAWG aims to stop this violence before it occurs by tackling the root cause, which is gender inequality. This is a long-term strategy which requires coordinated action across different levels of society, including in the media, policy, legislation, schools and workplaces.

The graphic shows a teal background with dark teal and white text that reads "What are the 3 levels of prevention? Primary > aims to stop VAWG before it occurs by tackling its root cause: gender inequality. Secondary > focuses on identifying the problem as early as possible after it has occurred to minimise harm. Tertiary > focuses on stopping a problem from getting worse or reoccurring once it has already occured". In the top right-hand corner of the graphic there is Engender's logo, which is an equals sign in a dark teal circle.

Violence against women and girls in Scotland

Women are more likely than men to have experienced intimate partner abuse, rape and other forms of sexual assault. All forms of VAWG intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic leading the UN to declare this phenomenon a “shadow pandemic”.

  • In 2021-22, Police Scotland recorded 64,807 incidents of domestic abuse. In cases where gender was recorded, 81% of incidents involved a female victim and a male accused.
  • In 2021-22, there were 15,049 sexual crimes recorded, equating to 24 per 10,000 population. The most commonly recorded sexual crime was sexual assault (36%) followed by rape and attempted rape (17%).
  • A quarter of girls aged between 13 and 25 have experienced sexual harassment at school, college or university.
  • Disabled women twice as likely as non-disabled to experience male violence. 
  • There were 118 recorded incidents of honour-based abuse in 2021
  • In 2021, the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 337 cases in the UK related to a possible forced marriage and/or possible female genital mutilation (FGM); 74% of these cases involved a female victim.
  • Asylum-seeking women and refugee women are at a greater risk of experiencing rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse and exploitation which is further compounded by being forced into destitution.
  • The number of women entering into prostitution for the first time increased during Phase 3 of Scotland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All forms of VAWG are vastly underreported; global evidence shows that less than 40% of women who experience any form of VAWG seek any type of support while less than 10% go to the police. Therefore, these figures likely underestimate the true scale of the problem in Scotland.

Gender inequality and VAWG

Gender inequality is the root cause of all forms of VAWG.

Evidence shows there are lower levels of VAWG in societies where women’s participation is valued and there are fewer social, economic and political inequalities between men and women.

Women in Scotland still do not have equal access to resources, power and respect across the economic, political, social and cultural domains. This is creating an environment which is enabling and tolerating all forms of VAWG which must be addressed urgently. 

Gender inequality can also be further compounded by multiple intersecting inequalities such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, class status, immigration status and disability. Furthermore, in the context of social exclusion and marginalisation, women with multiple intersecting inequalities commonly face additional barriers to seeking support and accessing justice.  

Primary prevention and public policy

Across the Scottish Government, policies are still being developed that fail to recognise the different and unequal ways in which men and women experience the world. Not only is this further entrenching gender inequality, but it is also contributing to an enabling environment for VAWG.

Promoting gender equality across all areas of public policy is vital for achieving a primary prevention approach. Policymakers across all areas of public policy must understand the relationship between gender inequality and this violence and be equipped to promote gender equality through their work.

Women are not a homogenous group; therefore policymakers must adopt an inclusive and intersectional approach to policy development. This involves gathering and analysing data on different women’s lived experiences of policy areas as well as the impact of intersecting inequalities. This is especially important given the continued exclusion of certain groups of women from policymaking and decision-making spheres, such as Black and minority ethnic women, migrant women, working-class women, disabled women and trans women. 

We’re calling on the Scottish Government to:

  • Embed gender-responsive and primary prevention approaches into public policy development across all directorates and policy teams  

  • Collect, use and publish intersectional gender-sensitive sex-disaggregated data on women’s experiences of different policy areas

  • Ensure Equality Impact Assessments are undertaken at the beginning of the policy development process to ensure these influence the shape of policies

  • Make gender competence and VAWG training programmes, such as the Equally Safe in Practice and Equally Safe at Work programmes, mandatory components of the civil service induction process and continued professional development opportunities

  • Encourage cross-directorate cooperation and collaboration to ensure gender equality and VAWG considerations are discussed and implemented across all policy areas  

  • Fulfil mainstreaming commitments called for by the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG), including:

    • embedding gender in the Scottish Approach to Service Design model

    • establishing Centres of Expertise on intersectional gender competence

    • creating a senior officials and leaders group on gender policy coherence

    • developing “Policymakers National Standards” which promote gender competence in policymaking

We’re calling on all Members of the Scottish Parliament to:

  • Employ a gender-responsive approach in all policymaking activities, including parliamentary committee inquiries and party political policies

  • Approve the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Sensitive Audit

  • Undertake Equally Safe in Practice and Equally Safe at Work programmes


We recommend women seeking advice to contact:

  • Scotland's Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is open 24/7 and supports anyone affected by domestic abuse or forced marriage, as well as their family members, friends, colleagues and professionals who support them. The helpline is free to phone and provides a confidential, sensitive service. 0800 027 1234.
  • The Rape Crisis Scotland helpline is open every day from 5pm to midnight and provides free confidential initial and crisis support and information for anyone who has been affected by sexual violence on 08088 010 0302. They also offer text support on 07537 410 027 and email support via
  • The Scottish Women's Rights Centre helpline is open Monday 10am - 12:30pm, Tuesday 12pm - 3pm, Wednesday 10am – 1pm, and provides free legal information and advice across Scotland 08088 010 789.


This work has been informed by Engender’s Expert Group on Primary Prevention which comprises the following organisations in Scotland’s women’s sector: Amina, Close the Gap, Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women’s Support Project, and Zero Tolerance

The Expert Group provides expertise on the impact of public policy decisions on VAWG in Scotland and identifies opportunities for change that will prevent all forms of VAWG before it occurs.

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