I've spent a great deal of my career writing about violence against women. The first big story I covered was the series of murders committed by the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and since then I've tackled rape, domestic abuse, prostitution and sex trafficking. So I didn't think twice when I was approached to become co-chair of the Mayor of London's Violence Against Women and Girls Panel. It brings together numerous organisations, including the Metropolitan Police, London councils and rape crisis centres, with the ambitious aim of eliminating abuse of women in one of the world's great cities. I'm not convinced we can get rid of violence completely, but anyone who wonders why such a body is necessary should look at the up-to-date statistics for London.
Reports of serious sexual offences, including rape, are up almost 20 per cent in five years. At a meeting at City Hall last week, chaired by the Deputy Mayor, Stephen Greenhalgh, senior detectives revealed there were 3,043 reported rapes in the year to April 2013. And that's "at best 20 per cent of what's happening in London", according to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt. Most frequently targeted are women aged 18 to 25, but 11- to 17-year-old girls are not far behind. London has a specific problem with gangs, and gang-related rapes rose by almost 82 per cent in a six-month period during 2012.
Like many cities, the capital has a growing commercial sex trade. New research on prostitution carried out by Eaves Housing found that more than four-fifths of the interviewees had experienced some form of violence. The report identified a group of women who move between the on- and off-street trade, challenging the notion that women who sell sex in flats lead more stable lives, while research by Westminster Council suggests there is an "iceberg" of violence in the off-street market.
I'd never heard of sex trafficking when I wrote my book Misogynies, but the police recorded 447 trafficking offences in London in the financial year 2012-13. That's a staggering 557.4 per cent increase on the previous year, which detectives say is the result of a specific investigation undertaken with the Polish authorities. Reliable figures on sex trafficking are hard to establish, but the Poppy Project, which supports victims, received 61 referrals from London councils in a recent 12-month period. Other towns and cities have similar problems, but on a smaller scale.
What can the Mayor's panel do? One of our ambitions is to ensure a consistent service across London for victims of sexual and domestic violence. Another is to look at setting up special courts for sexual offences, to ease the ordeal of giving evidence. Other priorities are getting successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation and supporting women who want to leave prostitution. It's both daunting and exciting, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a practical effect on something I've cared passionately about all my adult life.