We know you are very busy so we’ll make this brief.
We watched your opening address to the Tory Party conference in which you talked about how, as foreign secretary, you are going to “build a network of liberty around the world”. This marvellous network is going to include: “The G7 and NATO … our Pacific partners like Australia, Japan and Mexico … the great democracy of India and our friends across the Commonwealth … Israel … South Korea ... the Gulf states … those countries who escaped the USSR and fought for freedom … like the so-called Visegrad Four and the Baltic 3 … and of course our vital strategic partner the United States.”
Those of us who love liberty are rooting for you to make it work, but that’s a lot of people to keep in touch with, even for a Christmas round-robin email. You’re going to be very busy being secretary to all those foreign places.
Maybe it is because you are so busy that you had much less to say about women and girls – four lines actually – which began, “on development … I will be focusing on women and girls. I want to make sure more girls get a quality education.”
It’s hard to know how you plan to do this when one of your first acts as foreign secretary was to sign off £183m worth of cuts to women and equalities aid from the development budget. It’s the sort of action which one might expect the minister for women and equalities to raise an objection about – but they didn’t because … well, that’s you, isn’t it?
In your concluding remarks to the conference you declared, “freedom enables enterprise to flourish … people to flourish … girls and women to flourish”. This was weird because, last we looked, “girls and women” are people. Still, at least you mentioned them. The chancellor managed to give a whole speech without a word about how he intends to support those who have been severely impacted by, say, his decision to scrap the £20 uplift to universal credit – who are, for the most part, women.
It wasn’t until a fringe meeting at the conference that you addressed gender violence and the lack of safety women experience in this country, as if it were not a matter for centre stage. At the event, you were asked whether you had ever been the victim of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, to which you replied, “I’m in the fortunate position of being in a senior position so I don’t think anyone would try it on in that way and if they did, they would get very short shrift.” Are you suggesting that women are the ones responsible for not getting harassed, attacked or assaulted? Or perhaps that it only happens to women in junior positions?
Just this weekend, Clementine Cowton, the director of external affairs at Octopus Energy Group was allegedly “violently assaulted in the conference zone by a man” at the Conservative gathering. Since Sarah Everard’s appalling murder, 81 women have been killed. Every year in England and Wales, 1.6 million women experience domestic abuse and 85,000 experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration. This is not a question of doing or not doing the “right” thing. This is the other pandemic we’re facing; the pandemic of male violence against women, and a few window-dressing measures won’t cut it.
Will you really remain silent as your colleague Priti Patel announces plans for an inquiry into systematic police failures on Sarah Everard’s murder that seemingly ignores misogyny or sexism as factors? Or what about when Boris Johnson seemed more concerned by the depravity of pet theft than violence against women in his keynote yesterday? He must have accidentally left his policy plans to address gender-based violence on his special LNER train “to Manchester”.
The women and equalities portfolio should not be an add-on to some other job. It is not a hobby to be picked up in the idle hours when you can’t get Kim Jong-un or Joe Biden on the phone. Too many women have been left afraid, too many have died while your government fails to recognise and respond to the urgent need to prioritise women in this country. There should be no need for a separate Women’s Ministry. Equality ought to be built into every aspect of politics, but given that it absolutely isn’t, there needs to be someone, if not an entire government department, for whom this is a relentless focus.
Please could this at least be someone’s full-time job? Take misogyny seriously and resign from one role or the other.
Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer
PS If you decide to stick with the Foreign Office could you do something about the women of Afghanistan please? If you’ve even mentioned them lately, we must have missed it.
Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer are co-founders of The Women’s Equality Party
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