The prevalence of violence against women and girls remains unabated. We have become all too familiar with the statistic that two women are killed a week by their partner, with women of colour and migrant women disproportionately impacted by domestic homicide. Rather than properly address the issues that protect women and young girls, the government undertook a draconian round of cuts to public services and has been too eager to pass legislation such as criminalising forced marriage, without properly addressing the cause of violence against women and girls. They have failed us. As a survivor, and in advance of the main parties issuing their manifestos, here are my suggestions for how the new government can effectively combat violence against women and girls.
Make sex and consent education compulsory in schools. I imagine things have come a long way since I was in school but the current level of information is not fit for purpose. Given that young people face huge pressure to share explicit images via social media, they are being let down. Sex and relationship education should also include awareness on forced marriage and FGM. If these discussions are woven into the notion of consent, it may go some way in making clear to young people that they have a choice and that their “no” is of intrinsic importance and must be taken seriously.
Consent is the responsibility of both parties so this learning must ensure that young boys are also being taught what “no” means. The idea of male entitlement, a characteristic of patriarchal societies, prevalent globally, and which leads to the subjugation of women and treats them as an underclass, must be tackled early on.
Labour has suggested a Women’s Commissioner with a specific remit on addressing Violence Against Women. The Commissioner should report directly to the Cabinet – the heart of government. The remit of the Commissioner should include monitoring and advocating for domestic violence services for women; national campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and the support available; and monitoring police and other agency responses to ensure there is a joined-up approach. For far too long women have been let down because services have not shared information of the risk they face. The fact that 26% of rape and other sexual offences are not being recorded is simply not acceptable. If this is to be a priority, a dedicated senior representative is required who reports to the Prime Minister.
Statistics matter and that is why a new government must ensure that they formally record a femicide census. Women’s Aid, alongside Karen Ingala-Smith – the Chief Executive of Nia who started the campaign Counting Dead Women – launched the campaign this February. It is shocking that given the prevalence of violence against women and girls, and given that we know that the reported rates are only the tip of the iceberg, that the government does not currently record a femicide census.
If saving women’s lives is not sufficient impetus, Women’s Aid documents the reasons further. A femicide census will provide a clearer picture of domestic homicides in the UK and the groups most impacted including their age, ethnic background and region; in this way, we can better understand the background of fatal male violence where it was not a partner or ex-partner that was the perpetrator. All this information can inform the way the services are developed and address current failures. Patterns of behaviour matter and knowing who is at risk matters so women can get the support they need.
To ensure that every victim and survivor is taken seriously, a new government needs to continually push for diversity training for all frontline staff that may come into contact with victims and survivors. This should include GPs, Border Control, staff working in hospitals, staff providing housing support, teachers, social workers and more. Be under no illusion; listening the first time and acting appropriately will save lives. A woman needs huge courage to disclose the violence she is being subjected to or the pressure she is under to marry against her will – listen to her. Listen to her even if she does not fit your imagined notion of what a victim looks like; listen to her despite that. I speak from experience when I say when you ignore us you put us in mortal danger.
Government should lead by example and ensure there is a domestic violence policy in all government departments to support the women employed who may be at risk of violence.
Remember: domestic violence victims and survivors come from all walks of life. We are disproportionally women of colour; disabled women (some with invisible disabilities); trans women; lesbian and gay women; highly educated women with a high income; working class women; women who are involved in sex work. There is no typical domestic violence survivor. That is why training is key. When people are not subjected to scrutiny they are led by unconscious bias which means some people are not given the support they need. There may be some forms of domestic violence that are particularly hidden and women may face specific barriers to asking for help because of notions of honour and “izzat”. This does not mean that they are harder to engage, rather that training of frontline services need to meet their needs. Every woman matters, no matter what their background.
Funding should be ear-marked for women’s services. We already know that cuts to local government and other sources have disproportionately impacted women. Austerity impacts women much more so than men: women are over represented in the public sector; women are more likely to be lone parents; women access domestic violence services far more than men.
Finally and most importantly, listen to survivors. Other than statutory consultation for legislation, the government should meet regularly with survivors and women’s organisations. This dialogue will help inform policy making and get away from knee-jerk reactions which can be counterproductive. If the government is serious about addressing this issue, survivors’ voices should be at the centre.
Do not make women’s rights and needs an afterthought. Women’s services should be at the heart of the government agenda. Women’s rights are human rights and should be treated as such.
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Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing. She writes about feminism, tackling honour-based violence, forced marriage, mental illness, culture and activism, She is a regular contributor for the F-Word, Open Democracy and Time to Change. You can follow her on Twitter at @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.
‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.