Violence against women must be seen as a national threat, just like terrorism
Yesterday the Government intervened to save the Met chief, Cressida Dick, who was facing calls to resign after police under her command responded to women mourning a victim of violence with violence. The move inadvertently deprives the political classes of a scapegoat. It is now clearer than ever where the biggest historical failings lie—and the most urgent imperatives: with politicians themselves. They have never done enough to tackle violence against women and girls. And without the opportunity to protest, our only chance to demand this of them is at the ballot box.
This week members of all the old parties lined up to condemn harassment and violence as if it is a tragic but unstoppable force of nature. As if they haven’t slashed budgets to support services by 50 per cent over the past decade or allowed charging and conviction rates to plummet. As if they didn’t introduce digital strip searches that put rape victims on trial, or drag their feet on sex and relationships education for schools.
Make no mistake, their political choices are how we got here. More than 56,000 women report rape every year in England and Wales and 1.6 million women are victims of domestic abuse. A survey found 97 per cent of young women experience sexual harassment.
Women have every reason to feel under siege. Much is made of the claim that not all men are perpetrators. True, but the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. This is male violence, yet somehow women are expected to take responsibility for ensuring their own safety. And we do our best, but this in itself disfigures our lives. On Friday night the Women’s Equality Party invited women to tweet the precautions they take. Within 45 minutes more than 18,000 examples had been shared. In one tweet a woman described how she removed strands of hair from her head during taxi rides in case she never made it home. We projected these stories onto the Houses of Parliament to bring to politicians the realities they ignore.
Such responses as there have been are woefully inadequate. A Green Party peer called for a “man curfew” while Labour focused on longer sentences, not much help when fewer than three per cent of reported rapes result in a conviction. The Tories reopened an old consultation and, following a late-night emergency summit, threw in some extra street lights. The lack of ambition in the face of such a tragedy is breathtaking.
Politicians need to stop managing violence against women and start preventing it. Violence is not inevitable and with political will we can stop women being harassed, abused and killed. Violence against women must be recognised for what it is: a national threat. Combating it should be a strategic policing requirement, just like terrorism or child sexual exploitation. I want to see the creation of specialist police squads working with each other and with women’s organisations. We need a shake-up too of the criminal justice system, with funding restored so it can function properly.
Our rape law still requires a defendant only to demonstrate he had a “reasonable belief” in consent. What if instead we demanded proof of consent? Far from diminishing sex, it could add to the experience to be explicit about this. A similar law has been introduced in Sweden, resulting in a 75 per cent rise in conviction rates. If this was backed up with decent sex and relationships education, we could change the conversation from classrooms to courtrooms.
As for the Crown Prosecution Service, fewer sexual violence cases are being brought to court and fewer court cases are resulting in convictions. Rape has effectively been decriminalised. Perhaps the time has come to accept that applying a cost-benefit analysis to rape cases is not the best approach for survivors.
All of this will mean nothing unless we give women the support they need to leave violent relationships. So the starting point for every politician must be guaranteeing that no woman will be turned away from safe refuge. Specialist services are literally a lifeline for women, and the fact that they are closing down tells us everything we need to know about how committed politicians are to ending violence.
This May elections will be held across the country, including for Police and Crime Commissioners who set priorities and budgets. It is our single biggest opportunity to demand that every woman can live free from the fear of violence. Because if not now, then when?
Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality Party and a candidate for London Mayor