To tackle violence against women, we must address its root causes
"All forms of violence against women and girls are rooted in attitudes and stereotypes about their roles in society" says Chair of Equality and Human Rights Commission, Baroness Kishwer Falkner | Credit: Alamy
All forms of violence against women and girls are rooted in attitudes and stereotypes about their roles in society. We must look at how our society treats women on the whole, rather than in isolation.
Imagine this: it’s been an evening out with friends and now you’ve nervous because you’ve got to decide how to get home safely but don’t want to face the streets; or you’ve had another bad day at the office because the daily grind has turned into a test of your resilience in the face of attitudes that are designed to humiliate. Or at home, you dread the turning of the key in the door fearing that you just don’t know what today’s degradation will bring.
If you can imagine this, you are everywoman in contemporary Britain and these are the daily hurdles of your life - at every age.
The murder of Sarah Everard has shocked the nation. It has caused unimaginable pain for her family and friends. It has provoked an outpouring of empathy and outrage leading many women to share their own experiences of harassment and assault. These are not new. As a society, we have to do better - for Sarah and for all women.
We have to teach young boys and men about respect for women, and unpick the harmful stereotypes about the roles of women and girls in society
We all know that danger does not just exist out on the streets. Violence and abuse follows women into every aspect of their lives. It’s in the homes of over one and a half million women who are subjected to domestic abuse. We also know women and girls experience abuse online, and it is particularly widespread for female MPs or celebrities, some of whom face daily abuse social media.
Recent years have seen improvements in laws to protect women from violence. The act of upskirting is now an offence, and the Domestic Abuse Bill, currently passing through the House of Lords, introduces important changes, including the creation of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and improved protections for victims in court. We have consistently said that the Bill is a unique opportunity to make sure that everyone experiencing domestic abuse can access appropriate, specialist support and the full protection of the law to escape and rebuild their lives. We have worked with Government and Parliament to make some improvements to the Bill and we look forward to seeing it introduced.
Despite these vital improvements there is still a long way to go.
All forms of violence against women and girls are rooted in attitudes and stereotypes about their roles in society. We must look at how our society treats women on the whole, rather than in isolation. It is encouraging to see that the Women and Equalities Committee will now be looking at government action to change cultures underpinning male violence against women.
And the Government’s new violence against women and girls strategy – reopened for consultation after Sarah’s tragic murder – must also address these connections and all forms of abuse in a joined up way. All government departments must work together as this issue cuts across every aspect our lives, including in education, the justice system, and in work.
It starts with education in both the classroom and wider society. We have to teach young boys and men about respect for women and the impact of harassment. We have to unpick the harmful stereotypes about the roles of women and girls in society. We need to listen to and talk about every day experiences of harassment that almost appear ‘too normal’ to mention. And we need men to be allies, challenging inappropriate and sexist “banter” from their peers, and calling out misogyny for what it is.
Women are also too often failed and let down by the criminal justice system, where prosecution rates for domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault have fallen sharply and a concerning number of women are withdrawing support for their case.
The number of sexual offences recorded by the police in England and Wales has almost tripled over recent years, but it still remains well below the number of estimated victims in the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). The survey found that less than one in six female victims of rape or assault by penetration, aged 16-59, report the crime to the police.
Everyday harassment often takes place at work, and in 2018 three quarters of women who responded to an EHRC survey said they had experienced workplace sexual harassment and the perpetrator was often a senior colleague. All employers have a duty of care to protect their workers, which includes taking reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring.
Are we really going to settle for a society where half the population have to learn protective strategies against humiliation?
However, we think employers need to play a greater role in preventing harassment. To truly protect workers, there should be a mandatory duty on employers to take proactive, positive steps to prevent harassment both in the office and at work events, whether from fellow employees or from customers or clients. We look forward to the Government’s promised Employment Bill to address these gaps. Our ‘sexual harassment and harassment at work’ guidance for employers sets out how they can do this, including examples of policies and procedures they can put in place. We will also continue to take legal action against employers who fail to protect their workers.
Are we really going to settle for a society where half the population have to learn protective strategies against humiliation and to a lesser extent, violence, from a young age that endure throughout life? Let’s look at the bigger picture, at the harassment and abuse that too many women are experiencing, and take the necessary action so that women can feel safe outside, at home and at work.
Baroness Kishwer Falkner is Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission