Women’s voices should not be an afterthought in policies about their own safety
The government’s announcement of plain clothed police in clubs to keep women safe completely misses the point. Women need to feel confident that they will be believed when they report harassment.
The tragic killing of Sarah Everard and the events of last week have brought into focus the urgent need for action to deal with violence against women and girls. It has sparked a national conversation about women’s safety, a conversation that is all too familiar to the many women and girls I have worked with over the years.
Much has been debated recently about the need for decision makers to listen to the voices of women. Far too often when women and girls come forward to seek help, they are dismissed or not believed. During this lockdown, I have heard distressing stories about women approaching the police for help, only to be treated as if they were the perpetrators. This pattern is sadly repeated at home, in workplaces and in our public spaces.
Women’s lived experience and views on their own safety is often an afterthought to policies and decisions that impact them directly. We witnessed this at the start of the pandemic when all the main press briefings were dominated by men; failing to recognise the sizeable number of women on the frontline responding to the pandemic.
All women need to feel confident in reporting violence and harassment, and in return they need a criminal justice system that takes them seriously
The government’s recent announcement of additional CCVT, street lighting and ‘plain clothed police in clubs’ is a case in point. It feels like a knee jerk response that completely misses the point. It demonstrates the point that they probably didn’t seek advice from a wide range of women before this announcement.
It is fair to say that these public conversations sometimes fail to mention the voices of some of the most marginalised women in our society. I have campaigned for the voices of women and girls sadly caught up in the vicious cycle of gang violence and ‘county lines’ to be included in discussions about women’s safety.
I’m sure the government’s announcement will not be welcomed by black and ethnic minority women, LGBT+ women and other minority groups who have for years felt over-policed for all the wrong reasons. This must change if we are serious about addressing the unacceptable violence and sexual harassment women and girls face on a regular basis.
All women need to feel confident in reporting violence and harassment, and in return they need a criminal justice system that takes them seriously and does not discriminate against them. At present, women suffering abuse can be cross-examined in person by their perpetrators in civil and family courts. The mental trauma of this alone stops so many women from coming forward and seeing their case through the courts.
No woman should feel unsafe going about their daily lives like walking down the street or running in the park. The severity of cuts from central government over the past few years has limited local councils’ ability to address this issue on the ground. The government must ensure councils have sufficient funding to prioritise investment in women’s safety. The new legal duty contained in the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill on local councils to provide refuge services for women fleeing domestic abuse is a step in the right direction, but is not supported by long term funding. Women’s Aid estimates that funding for domestic abuse support will cost £393 million per year.
We need to see change in the way the police deal with women. The Metropolitan Police’s handling of a peaceful vigil in my constituency was unacceptable. In Lambeth we have a team of dedicated officers keen to work with the wider community to keep residents safe. I welcome the review into the handling of the vigil and looking ahead I support calls for officers to undertake anti-misogyny and anti-racism training.
Our streets and public spaces should not be places of fear for women and girls. We need to listen to women’s voices and we must believe what they are telling us. Only then can we begin to heal the mistrust and put in place long overdue protections against this unacceptable violence.
Florence Eshalomi is the Labour MP for Vauxhall.