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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Knowledge, not teddy, keeps a child safe at home

You couldn't make it up. First, it was compulsory sex education for teenagers. Now, five-year-olds are going to be taught it's wrong to beat women. Alan Johnson and Harriet Harman think they know better than parents; is nothing too sacred to stop meddling Labour ministers interfering? Whatever happened to the innocence of little children? I'm paraphrasing, but that's the right-wing reaction to one of the key elements of the Government's strategy to stop violence against girls and women. In reality, five-year-olds aren't going to be taught about domestic violence, although the Government believes they should be taught bullying is wrong. But let's not let facts stand in the way of a story.

The headline over a Daily Mail column by Jan Moir – the writer whose spiteful remarks after the death of Stephen Gately caused the largest-ever number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission – was "the madness of lessons in wife-beating", as though little boys are actually going to be taught how to attack their future partners. And this is Moir on what the Government proposes to do to the nation's children: "No longer can the most important thoughts in a tot's mind be ice cream, games, cuddles and teddy bears. Now, their soft little brains are to be clouded by the dark smoke of adult violence before they are barely capable of cogent thought." I'm not sure where Baby P and other abused children fit into this rosy vision of childhood, but I'm convinced future generations will be less at risk if they're taught the violence they see at home isn't normal.

Here are some figures: according to the Department of Health, at least 750,000 children witness domestic violence each year. That's three-quarters of a million "tots" and older children who don't have the luxury of dreaming about Barbie dolls and feeding the ducks, because they're exposed daily to adult violence, growing up in the belief that slaps and kicks are a normal feature of relationships. The toll on individuals and the country's resources is enormous; the Government says half of all women in touch with mental health services have experienced violence and abuse.

Ministers wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't think that radical measures are needed to protect children, women and men from violence in the home. (One in four women and one in six men will become a victim of this at some point in their lives.) I'm delighted that the Spanish government, which currently holds the EU presidency, wants to make measures to tackle domestic violence a priority across Europe; last week, Le Monde reported that recorded cases of violence against women in France rose by almost a third between 2004 and 2007, while 157 women were killed last year by husbands or boyfriends.

Children who grow up in violent households are likely to repeat such behaviour as adults. Adult perpetrators need to be identified and punished, but it's equally vital to intervene at an early age and try to stop the cycle of abuse. In the UK, ministers are proposing to do just this through school lessons for older children which combat attitudes that condone and perpetuate violence against women.

This isn't political correctness gone mad, but a practical approach to a social problem that blights thousands of lives each year. For too many children, the home is a dangerous, frightening place. I don't want to see another generation grow up beaten and abused to protect a sentimental myth about woolly lambs and teddy bears.

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