A year ago the women of the UK hoped and prayed that a woman they had never met would be found. Then, a year ago, they let out a collective wail when she wasn’t.
If it’s #MeToo or a well-publicised murder, women step forward to bare their souls about the violence and abuse they have suffered. For a few weeks everyone stops and listens and in many cases people learn, but does anything really change?
I’ll start with the positive. Yes, I feel as if something has changed. I feel for the first time in my activist and political career that the public are with me shoulder to shoulder. I feel that in the last year the political power of those who speak about male violence against women has surged forward. I feel as if men stood up taller this year in the fight and recognised how knackered we women are and realised that this isn’t our problem – it’s theirs. I feel as if there is a chance for change.
But outside of meeting rooms and the halls of Westminster, absolutely nothing has changed in how women and girls experience their daily lives. There has been not one single improvement in the way that cases of rape, sexual harassment or domestic abuse are dealt with.
In fact, it’s got worse. More women were killed by men in the last year than in the previous one. The government has spent a year looking hard at the idea of criminalising public sexual harassment. (I’m not sure how one looks hard, but they tell me that’s what they are doing.) Hard looks won’t help. Rape prosecutions have fallen to their lowest ever level; more children are being exploited and trafficked than before. On every single metric, in the last year we have slid backwards.
This week the government announced that it would make violence against women and girls a strategic policing priority, which is good, but myself and the Labour Party have long been calling for it. Time will tell if it changes things on the ground. Why has it taken so bloody long for a pernicious crime that kills many more people and harms millions more than terrorism to be taken as seriously?
I’ll tell you why: it’s because it happens to women. Action over our pain and suffering, be it in women’s health or women’s safety, doesn’t progress because our pain is so very tolerable. Be it the bruises on our faces or our screams in labour, society has accepted women’s pain as the general beige wallpaper of our existence. In response, we women dressed it up for years as if we were tough and could cope with more than men; I guess it made us feel better about the fact that our hurt is not just normalised, it’s expected.
So the criminal justice has got worse in the last year, but anyone who works in this arena will tell you that this only represents a tiny fraction of the cases. Most people never see a police officer, let alone a courtroom. So has that got better? I think you’ve guessed it: it’s got worse. The cost of living crisis is genuinely dangerous for victims of domestic abuse. An extra hundred quid a month spent on electricity is the difference between being able to afford to escape or not.
So if all the attention this issue received a year ago with the murder of Sarah Everard was to hold up, you would imagine that the government had considered this in their planning of managing the cost of living crisis. Yet nothing has been put in place and nothing will be. I imagine that they didn’t even consider it.
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Ministers will stand and tell me they are doing so very much. They repeat the same funding figures that they have been announcing for three years over and over again. They say nothing about the need for housing or welfare as part of the solution; they just act tough on crime while in fact more abusers are being let off.
I await the women’s health strategy with bated breath, but my hope has stopped springing. I imagine that, although every rape victim I have ever met told me they couldn’t access mental health support for their trauma, there will be nothing in this strategy to say that every mental health trust in the country should commission specialist services. We are just forgotten again and again. I hope I am wrong.
Around the time of anniversaries or events such as International Women’s Day, everyone remembers. Governments make announcements they should have made months if not years ago and grab a few headlines. Nothing will ever change if we only care on 8 March. Our pain is an all-year-round thing. It should be considered in every policy; it should be considered every day, and the government should not rest until it’s done.
I know there is no silver bullet, but if we really wanted to change this we could, we should, and I know plenty of people who would. Alas, they are not in Downing Street.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
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