British democracy and women's right to live free from violence

As the general election approaches in May 2015, women's organisations in the UK have issued the Women's Safety Manifesto. Politicians ignore it at their peril when it comes to the vote.

Sarah Green
9 December 2014

The last few weeks have seen some very visible feminist campaigning in the UK which has successfully challenged a big football club’s intention to restore an unrepentant convicted rapist to glory, a national TV station’s relationship with a rape-celebrating comedian, and the visa application of a racist misogynist (with essential support from overseas sisters).

This has led to the predictable complaints that feminists are a “mob” set on censorship, acting recklessly with civil liberties and stupidly failing to take on the ‘real’ problems. Not-so-subtle sexist terms appear in some of these critiques: “shrill”, “hysteria” and “childish”, and the irony of terming women’s rights activists the “mob” in relation to a case where a sectarian Twitter mob hounded a rape survivor to the extent of criminally naming her, and football fans in the terraces chanted pro-rape slogans, is staggering.

What the visibility, the vibrancy and the spontaneity of this feminist campaigning indicate is the presence of a large and confident ‘flotilla’ of feminist activists who are able to challenge attacks on women’s rights to safety and to bodily autonomy, and that there is an ample part of public opinion tuned into them and responding.

It’s easy to throw mud from the sidelines and declare that feminist campaigning like this is wrong-headed. But this criticism misses the point when it castigates the feminist movement as a whole. This campaigning is a symptom of resurgent women’s consciousness and action in the UK which is making best use of new means of getting heard. It is well connected to women’s organisations which have been providing essential services , lobbying, and consciousness-raising all along. Activists and women’s organisations fully understand the totemic value of the ‘social moments’ around cases like those above, but they are not our sole agenda. 

Women’s organisations are developing a comprehensive programme for the next British Government. From Fawcett and the Women’s Budget Group’s detailed work on political under-representation and economic inequality, to the Women’s Resource Centre ensuring the voices of women’s groups of every size are heard and UK Feminista mobilising thousands of younger women. At the End Violence Against Women Coalition we have drawn on decades of frontline experience providing woman-centred specialist services to survivors of abuse by our members including Eaves, Imkaan, Rape Crisis, Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid, to develop a Women’s Safety Manifesto which the political parties will ignore at their peril when it comes to the vote. Our five-part #WomensSafetyPledge calls on all parliamentary candidates for election to support:

A new law on women’s support services : the next British Government should end the ‘postcode lotteries’ endured by those running and seeking specialist support services for women who have survived abuse. Right now, if you seek support from a Rape Crisis Centre for a recent or historic rape, or if you flee a violent relationship and try to access emergency refuge accommodation, you are not guaranteed to receive either. You might well find that there is no provision where you live or that there is a long waiting list or that you are ‘competing’ with other women and families in need to get help.  This has to stop. These services are essential and life-saving. No ifs or buts or partials. We need a statutory duty at every level of government to ensure that women and girls who experience sexual, domestic or other violence - including BME women and those with uncertain immigration status - have access to specialist support and advocacy services in their community including refuges, help lines and advice. For too long these services have existed precariously and the so-called austerity cuts have been devastating.

Protection for marginalised women : when policy makers do look at violence against women and girls in the UK their attention is too often focused on an ‘average’ British woman as victim, and on a still too narrow understanding of different forms of abuse. When the next government develops the cross-departmental Strategy to End Violence Against Women and Girls they must ensure that the rights of every woman in Britain, whatever her background or immigration status, are protected, as the international treaties underpinning the human rights approach to violence against women and girls clearly set out. The needs of girls are too often not addressed by those who commission services or by the criminal justice system. The austerity cuts have been more than devastating for the specialist BME women’s sector, who have seen their decades of service provision which was based on being rooted in BME communities and knowing best what support women in abusive situations needed, absorbed into more generic providers like housing associations and even private contractors.

We urgently need an end to the UK’s shameful detention of survivors of gender-based violence who are seeking asylum here. And we need policy makers to register the multiple experiences of abuse women commonly experience before entering prostitution and within it. Members of EVAW believe that the ‘sex buyer law,’ alongside comprehensive exiting support for women who want it, is the only answer.

Compulsory sex and relationships education for all young people in school : every expert and frontline worker on abuse of women and girls will tell you that the key long-term measure for preventing abuse in the first place has to be compulsory ‘SRE’. This is how we can ensure that young people are guaranteed the opportunity to talk to trusted adults about consent, choices, pornography, and the confusing and conflicting messages in our culture about sexuality and men’s and women’s equality. And that they hear about the law on sexual consent, and equality and respect between men and women.

Addressing harmful media images : this is where feminists are commonly accused of wanting to curtail free speech and other liberties. But that is misrepresentation. Many of us simply support a consistent approach to the regulation of harmful images across television, film, music videos, advertising and print media, based on harm-based criteria. Films including scenes of sexual violence for example are very rarely banned outright, but they receive a certificate and are controlled. TV has a watershed. Both of these regimes are consistently found to be popular with the public. Campaigning has brought about a pilot programme giving certificates to online music videos. The push to remove Page 3 from unrestricted everyday reach again reveals the strength of feeling on the portrayal of women in public life. We are living in a time of unprecedented media change and convergence, where new media is providing a means and a platform for women’s rights campaigns as well as enabling the creation and distribution of harmful and hateful content.  Women’s and girls’ rights to safety should be a priority in media policy. 

Violence against women and girls Plans : these plans are held up as best practice internationally, and are the way to ensure that every level of government takes into account and adequately plans its response to all  forms of abuse of women and girls. A new law requiring national and local governments to work with the women’s sector to develop violence against women and girls plans, and ensure resources for frontline services, would take us a long way to ensuring this vision was genuinely being worked towards.

The EVAW Coalition is confident that a very broad group of grassroots services and activists are ready to engage fully with this election agenda, and place it firmly under the noses of thousands of parliamentary candidates before 7 May, 2015. While most violence against women organisations do not have the funds to set up campaigning and lobbying departments (unlike household name charities), we are a social movement with an ever growing reach to a groundswell of feminists - old and young.

From where we stand, we are watching closely the discussion and political dance around the ‘women’s vote,’ which is being keenly researched and profiled by Mumsnet. We know that the Westminster child sex abuse inquiry and ongoing high profile sexual abuse trials will also form a critical backdrop to the UK election campaign. Public discussion of why survivors of abuse usually do not report it, and what their needs are, will be very prominent.

In the run up to a general election with an increasingly unpredictable outcome, as old loyalties are reported to  be fracturing, and where violence against women and girls is more clearly than ever seen as a human rights and public policy issue by politicians left and right, women’s organisations will demand to be heard at the heart of debate. High profile Twitter campaigns against  misogynists may continue to attract the most mainstream attention, but the UK women’s movement will ensure that our agenda for womens' rights to live free from violence reaches all those hoping to become part of the next government.

Read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014









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