I don’t want another woman to face sexual harassment in Westminster like I did – the time to end abuse is now

The Women’s Equality Party is right when it calls Westminster a ‘haven for abusers’. There is a deeply rooted problem, and it requires radical policy changes 

Jasvinder Sanghera
Sunday 13 October 2019 13:35
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Jess Phillips: 'What matters more, political power or protecting victims of sexual harassment?'

The #MeToo movement amplified women’s voices across the globe, including mine. It was that campaign that finally gave me the courage to come forward after 12 years of silence, to report that I was a victim of sexual harassment.

I am widely considered an empowered woman who, for over two decades, has stood up for women that do not have a voice. And yet when it came to reporting my own sexual harassment, I had previously felt paralysed.

There were many reasons for this, not least my worries about the sheer power imbalance between me and the member of the House of Lords who had harassed me. From afar, I watched over the years as politicians showed they were unable to tackle abuse even in their own backyard.

I also had my personal struggles to deal with. As a survivor of a forced marriage, it had taken me years to rid myself of the “victim” label and now I was faced with having to accept it again. Nonetheless, I made the decision to come forward, both for my own sense of closure and in the hopes that I could be part of securing change for others.

At first, I felt relieved that I had done so. Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, the commissioner for standards, handled the whole process with total independence and dignity and the 18-month investigation was heard by a committee that included the most eminent legal minds in the country.

Finally, they reached a unanimous decision that the peer I had accused “sexually harassed the complainant, offered her a corrupt inducement to have sex with him and warned her of unspecified consequences if she did not accept this offer”. I will never forget hearing this and feeling so thankful that I had been believed, in the knowledge that so many other women are denied justice.

But I had not anticipated what would happen next.

As the committee’s motion went to the House of Lords, the approval process (usually a matter of formality) was transformed into a debate on my credibility. I watched as one by one, members of the House of Lords declared their friendship with the peer, announcing their disbelief over my allegations. The investigation, my conduct and my motives for reporting were called into question. As has happened to other women, my empowerment was used against me as it was suggested that a strong activist like me would have reported sooner if the incident had really occurred. The issue of sexual harassment was not discussed. I felt slandered.

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Despite this horrible experience, I never lost sight of how important the investigation was. Scores of other women contacted me to share their experiences involving politicians and peers. I will never forget one brave woman who, “in solidarity,” was willing to share her own experience with the peer I had accused. We should never underestimate the courage it takes to report harassment, and these courageous individuals kept me going.

However, since that investigation, I have chosen not to use the name of my harasser when speaking out. This is not because I am afraid of him. It is because, if there’s one thing that debate in the House of Lords taught me, it’s that the problem in Westminster is far bigger than one man.

The prime minister commented at the time that the House of Lords “must not be allowed to mark their own homework”. But, although the Lords must be credited for adopting robust new procedures to deal with sexual harassment (which were proposed in a report written as a result of my complaint) it seems that both the Lords and the Commons often continue to do just that. Harassment is rife, some colleagues turn a blind eye and disciplinary processes are not adequate to hold abusers to account.

The Women’s Equality Party is right when it calls Westminster a “haven for abusers.” There is a deeply rooted cultural problem, and it requires radical policy changes and consistent support for those who report to tackle it. That’s why I am standing by the Women’s Equality Party’s campaign, which calls on all other parties to rise to the challenge and end abuse starting with Westminster.

Jasvinder Sanghera is the founder of Karma Nirvana, a national award-winning charity that supports both men and women affected by honour-based abuse and forced marriages

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