Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash
By Louise Palmer
Content warning: Violence against Women and Girls/ Sexual Assult
When asked to think about Human Rights, it is common for people to picture places and situations that are distant or far removed from their everyday lives. However, this perception is deeply misleading as Human Rights remain as significant as ever in the UK. This argument is relevant to many different topics, but none are more pressing than the discussion concerning the epidemic of violence against women and girls.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. Over the past year, news headlines have shown a pattern of women being violently deprived of their fundamental right to life. This issue was brought into sharp focus by the violent murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and more recently, Ashling Murphy in the Republic of Ireland. A collective outpouring of grief and anger has led to renewed attention on the everyday experiences of women and girls. Whilst there was an increased openness of conversations, the stories told were not new or surprising. Those who claimed to be shocked by these discussions quite simply had not been listening.
The femicide epidemic (the killing of a woman or girl, by a man because of her gender) is not a recent development in the UK. Data suggests that a woman is killed by a man every three days. Only a minority of cases make national headlines, and those that do are still largely portrayed as single tragic events. Karen Ingala-Smith, the author of Counting Dead Women, describes a “hierarchy of victims”. “Men’s fatal violence against women cuts across all sections of society, across ages, class and ethnicity. But some women are afforded more empathy than others. Some are more likely to be disbelieved, to be blamed, to be sent away without the help they need”. Furthermore, we are less likely to hear about the women who are killed in their own homes or by someone they know. Despite this, data suggests that half of the women killed by men are killed by a partner or an ex.
Fatal violence against women and girls does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a larger issue across society. While both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse, it remains both strongly gendered and highly under-reported. It is thought that around one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Moreover, UN Women UK reported that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed. They also found that 96% of women did not report “those situations because of the belief that it would not change anything”. This is not surprising given that only 1.6% of UK [reported] rape cases led to charges in 2020.
Tackling the epidemic of violence against women and girls requires wholesale societal change. As a country, we will have to confront the misogynic attitudes and mindsets which underpin these crimes. There is still value in short-term solutions to protect women, and they should be implemented by the government and authorities. This could include funding services but should not feature offering advice that inadvertently victim-blames. However, if we are to be committed to change, we cannot stop there. Longer-term progress will require uncomfortable discussions and soul-searching about the everyday realities of women and girls in the UK. One possible suggestion following this logic is to make misogyny (hatred or prejudice against women) a hate crime.
This bill was presented by Labour MP Stella Creasy and passed by the House of Lords. Therefore, it will now return to the House of Commons to be debated again, after its initial rejection. In practice, the bill would mean that when a crime is carried out against a woman because she is a woman, it would be recorded as a hate crime and provide the opportunity for harsher sentencing (in England & Wales). A coalition of campaigners, including Citizens UK and Refuge, argue that this “would provide critical data on the link between hostility to women and the abuse and harassment women experience”. Campaigners also argue that this would help women to feel that they would be believed and supported in recording crimes.
However, other figures have opposed the proposed bill arguing that it would further overstretch resources and dilute the impact of current hate crime legislation by creating too broad a category. Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that there was “abundant statute” to effectively tackle violence against women and girls. The BBC also reports that he argued that “widening the scope of what you ask the police to do, you will just increase the problem”. The challenge of overstretched police resources is undoubtedly an issue facing the government and local authorities. Be that as it may, it is not an excuse in 2022 to continue to avoid the reality of the epidemic of violence against women and girls. Accurate reporting and data on crimes motivated by misogyny are essential tools to expose the extent of this problem.
Regardless of the outcome of this bill, the UK must continue to have uncomfortable discussions and confront the impact of misogyny on our society. Only by doing this, can we hope to make progress in tackling violence against women and girls.