My inspiring day at the Labour Party Conference

This weekend, our advocates attended the Labour Party Conference to quiz MPs on their approach to ending sexual harassment in schools. Hannah Brisbane reports on what it was like to talk face to face with key decision-makers

Hannah Brisbane
28 September 2016

This Sunday, I forfeited my usual lie-in to catch a train from Edinburgh to Liverpool to attend the Labour Party Conference

Following a swarm of people wearing matching lanyards to Liverpool’s Arena and Conference Centre, I was unsure of what to expect - but excited to meet some MPs and promote our new campaign to end sexual harassment in schools.

I arrived a little later than the other advocates (my journey took almost five hours!) but I caught up with them in the Youth Zone, where young representatives from different organisations put questions to MPs throughout the day.

An epidemic of harassment

The first session I went to was on mental health. The panel was made up of MPs Lisa Nandy and Luciana Berger, and Anne Longfield, who is the Children’s Commissioner for England. During this session, a fellow Advocate Maria asked their opinion on the effect sexual harassment has on girls’ mental health and what can be done to better support girls who have experienced it.

Luciana said she found the recent report published by the Women and Equalities Committee - which shows a huge epidemic of sexual harassment in schools - ‘deeply devastating’. She believed we wouldn’t be seeing such staggering figures ‘had girls and boys been taught to respect each other from primary school’.

Both Lisa and Luciana assured us they would continue to campaign for compulsory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) - it was certainly a positive start to my afternoon to hear our calls were so widely supported!

The roundtable

After another session with MPs Andy Burnham and Anna Turley, the Youth Zone was transformed into a small meeting room for Girlguiding to host a roundtable discussion.

This was my favourite part of the day – as we had a rare chance to discuss our campaign one-to-one with MPs Jess Phillips, member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in Parliament, and Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

Advocate Vicky – who was super busy at the weekend, addressing a panel on Violence Against Women and Girls the day before – opened with a powerful personal story. She spoke very candidly about a time a boy came up to her in school and made a crude comment about her breasts.

What disturbed me the most was that she was told by her friends to take it as a compliment. Vicky couldn’t understand why a compliment would leave her feeling so uncomfortable and violated.

Vicky’s speech really made me think about how we - as girls - are taught to accept boys’ insulting and intimidating behaviour. Clearly, it’s time we put a stop to it instead of asking girls to dismiss it - sexual harassment is not ‘banter’!

SRE ‘not a silver bullet’

I was really keen to quiz the MPs on their stance towards the other recommendations in the Women and Equalities Committee’s report - specifically the whole-school approach.  A whole-school approach is where you involve all members of the school community – including teachers, students, parents and governors – in tackling a specific problem.  It means creating a proper strategy rather than just introducing one policy.

Like us, both Jess and Angela were passionate that it wasn’t enough to simply provide compulsory SRE – they felt it needed to be high quality and properly supported. Jess said that SRE ‘is not a silver bullet’ and only an approach that involves the whole school would work to tackle sexual harassment effectively.

It was great to hear that they were so enthusiastic about our campaign, offering us their ‘100% support’.

Fantastic support for our campaign

When Luciana Berger told us that she was ‘really impressed’ with Girlguiding’s work, it made me proud of what we do as Advocates.

We have an incredible platform to speak out on issues that are affecting girls up and down the country. The roundtable gave us the opportunity to quiz MPs in person. I was also able to pose a question on youth and female engagement to Andy Burnham, which was a huge boost to my confidence.

But attending the Labour Party Conference was just one step for us. The Advocates will be continuing to call for support from not only MPs but also the public. This cause is too serious to ignore, and girls deserve better.

Read more about the Advocates' campaign

We're calling on governments to take action to prevent and tackle sexual harassment in all schools.