Women’s issues could be pushed off the national agenda by a potential death of female participation in the imminent general election, campaigners and politicians have warned.
Concerns have been raised that women may not feel comfortable taking part in political canvassing or answering the door to political activists after dark, with street harassment last year ruled to be a widespread problem by the Women and Equalities Committee. It found that women and girls are subjected to “relentless” harassment on the streets, ranging from cat-calling to being shouted at to sexual assault.
Campaigners argued that holding an election in December – for the first time since 1923 – is part of a wider effort to “suppress the vote”.
Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, said: “Ultimately people will say fears around sexual harassment should not be an issue but it will be. Women all take measures to protect themselves.
“Darkness affects people’s willingness to leave their homes and once it is dark people are reluctant to open the front doors to strangers. This is why elections are not held in winter. It has been nearly 100 years since there has been an election in December.
“All we can hope is what is at stake for women’s rights will get women out. 86 per cent of austerity cuts have fallen on women’s shoulders. We have seen a phenomenal rise in period poverty in the fifth-largest economy. We have seen women cheated out of their pensions. This election will determine how women are treated. At the moment, they are treated as an inconvenience by the government.
“Elections should be held to get the largest response possible from as many people as possible and holding an election in the dark and rain suppresses the vote overall.”
Ms Butler, the MP for Brent Central, also hit out at the prevalence of victim-blaming of women who are harassed or assaulted – saying it is “never the woman’s fault” and they should never be told to “do this or do that”. She added that she often takes a taxi home rather than walking in the dark and uses only one of her headphones’ earpieces due to concerns around safety.
Tara O’Reilly, the co-founder and chair of Women in Westminster, a group set up to support women parliamentary staffers, also argued a winter election would potentially disenfranchise women due to safety concerns.
Speaking to The Independent, Ms O’Reilly, who works for a group of Labour MPs, said: “I’m put off campaigning in the winter months because I’m already worried about being harassed whenever I’m out alone in the dark, but to knock on strangers doors and walk around areas I don’t know so well when abuse towards those in politics is so high? I’d rather stay home than risk my safety.”
Sam Smethers, the chief executive of women’s rights organisation Fawcett Society, echoed these concerns: “I think we can be sure that the safety of women wasn’t the first consideration of the PM and others promoting a December election.
“We know that both women candidates, campaigners and voters will be thinking about and managing their own safety throughout this campaign,” she said. “The prospect of voting on a cold, dark winter evening will put some voters off and that is a real concern. This can be mitigated in part by maximising the use of postal votes, but many voters won’t know that is an option.”
But these fears were dismissed by Maria Miller, a Conservative MP who is chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee. She said: “I have not heard anyone say they wouldn't get involved in canvassing because it is a winter election. People will get involved any time of year.”
Tsitsi Matekaire, a women’s rights expert at Equality Now, an NGO that aims to promote the rights of women and girls, said: “Gender-based violence and harassment can impede women’s participation in civil society. Political parties should be cognisant of obstacles that hinder women’s involvement in political and public life and be doing their utmost to remove all barriers.
“Holding a general election in December is likely to have an impact on campaigning as some women will not feel comfortable street canvassing after dark because of safety concerns, and people are less likely to open their doors to strangers at nighttime.”
Ms Matekaire said women who are unable to make it to polling stations within daylight hours may also be discouraged from voting. Authorities should help address concerns by making sure all polling stations and access routes are in well-lit areas, she said.
Jenn Selby, who is representing the Women’s Equalities Party at the forthcoming election, said the dark did not put her off political canvassing but others could be discouraged.
“We always go [door knocking] in groups or pairs,” she said. “But women feel unsafe on the streets. I don’t know many women who walk home without their keys in their hand late at night. I prefer to get a cab that is trackable. The problem at large here is other parties have been too slow to act on violence against women in our homes, on our streets, and in our parliament.”
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