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THE murder of Sarah Everard in March this year has rightly triggered the collective and demonstrable anger on the issue of violence against women.
The Met Police’s handling of the vigil in Clapham Common last month was so aggressive, female protesters were forced to the ground and handcuffed. An iconic photograph of protester Patsy Stevenson went viral, producing widespread public condemnation of Cressida Dick’s policing and serving to expose the terrible irony of violence against women at an event that had been organised to raise awareness of that very subject.
Much on sexual harassment and abuse has come to light as a result of the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Yet the subject of violence against women, including domestic violence, can still produce stigmatic and troubling responses.
Apropos of the Sarah Everard murder last month I overheard two neighbours in Glasgow chatting. One neighbour commented, “Why was she walking home at night on her own?” To which another of my neighbours replied, “Well, what was that cop doing, prowling the streets at night and looking for a murder victim?”
The implied suggestion that a woman might be inviting an attack by daring to walk home alone at night, is of course indicative of the way men and women are socialised.
Women’s socialisation has for centuries revolved around the normalisation and internalisation of much of their daily experiences dodging bias, discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment and of course the threat of violence, whether the attacker is known to them or not.
Two years ago I was volunteering as a caseworker at a human rights organisation. I discovered via separate, chance conversations that three women in the same small office had suffered historic domestic violence. By the time the third woman confided in me, I felt comfortable enough to admit my own experience with it.
Statistics on violence against women (including transgender women) are stark: government figures from 2019 reported that 1 in 4 women in Britain will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 are sexually assaulted. This statistic rises to 1 in 3 on a global level.
But we know that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of gender-based violence has increased exponentially, putting more pressure on women’s aid organisations who are already working around the clock to support women and in some cases, having to turn women away.
Prior to the pandemic, in courts in England and Wales as well as Scotland a mounting backlog of criminal cases plunged the system into crisis when Covid-19 hit. At the time of writing, the city of London currently has the worst prosecution rates in Britain for domestic violence, while prosecutions for rape allegations are 1 in 20.
In Scotland less than half of all rape trials result in a conviction. To this end, last month a cross-justice review body was announced, putting forward proposals to establish a specialist court for the most serious of sexual offences. But perhaps we don’t have to look very far in terms of legal provisions that can arguably exacerbate the issue of violence against women and in effect feed into the wider picture.
We know that the Spycops Bill gives police and security services license to commit grave crimes, including rape and murder, with advance immunity from prosecution. The fact that Labour MPs were ordered to abstain on this Bill cannot go unnoticed.
That the Bill was being rushed through Parliament, curiously at the same time as a high profile civil action against undercover officers accused of rape by female survivors, also should not be swept under the carpet.
Another grave irony in all of this is that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC) is being rushed through Parliament, at exactly the same time there are attacks on protesters. This Bill is an attack on civil liberties, including the right to protest.
As a former human rights lawyer, Labour leader Keir Starmer has a curious voting record on Bills that can be seen to contravene civil liberties and human rights. His original position on the PCSC Bill vote was that Labour MPs be whipped to abstain. His last minute U-turn to oppose the Bill does little to allay any public fears of a personal lack of conviction on this matter.
Taken together with absentions on Bills such as the Spycops Bill it serves to remind us that the Labour leadership would, at present, rather support a Conservative elite than align with ordinary working people.
Starmer would be as well to tread carefully. A whip to abstain on Bills containing such draconian measures could mean more than just defeat at the polls; it could signal the beginning of the end of democracy in Britain.
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