November 25th saw the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This occasion was marked by a debate in the House of Lords last Thursday.
Just reading the Hansard account of the debate made me feel sick. There was a former surgeon describe the hours of surgery it took to reconstruct one woman's face after a violent attack by her partner. There were descriptions of how girls as young as 12 were subjected to Female Genital Mutilation in this country despite laws against it. Where is the worst place in the world to be a woman? Reputedly a province in the Democratic Republic of Congo where 40 women are raped every day. In India, 50% of men and women believe that wife-beating is justified if a woman disrespects her in-laws or neglects the house.
Two Liberal Democrat peers spoke in the Debate. Sal Brinton wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice in 2008 about the awful campaign of intimidation and harassment inflicted on her and other Watford Liberal Democrats by Ian Oakley. In the week the new Anti-Stalking law came into force, she talked about what that would mean for people who had been in her situation:
I give my personal thanks to all Ministers who supported this legislation as it progressed through Parliament, and particularly to Lynne Featherstone, who made it a priority to champion the fight against violence against women in any form. It remains essential that we hear the voices of the victims and assess the risks to them. An anti-stalking law is only as effective as those who enforce it. The culture change proposed in the new law may take a while to implement, but I am sure that now we have a tool that can give women peace of mind and safety from the persistent nightmare of stalkers.
Meral Hussein-Ece made some very important points about the underlying culture. Having laws giving women rights is one thing, but if men still dominate the law enforcement organisations, these laws are unlikely to be implemented as well as they could be. She recounted how she had been threatened for trying to help women:
Recently, a high-profile, educated woman from the Indian sub-continent told me of an incident where a senior official casually in conversation talked of how when he beat his wife, she knew what she had done wrong. This is by no means an unusual attitude and is not necessarily confined to poorer communities. I experienced threats of violence myself some years ago, when I set up the first project and centre to support Turkish and Kurdish women who experienced violence in the UK, from the very men who perpetrated that violence against women and their family behind closed doors, or who, often in the name of their so-called honour, which, as we all know, is dishonour, tried to control women by using violent methods.
Having laws in place is not enough. We need those laws to be properly implemented. We know that legislatures and enforcement authorities are usually dominated by men who often do not see this issue as a priority. We must do better to protect women and prevent this pervasive human rights violation.
She went on to add that we hadn't quite got it right in the UK yet either, citing media portrayal of women and its consequences:
Here in the UK, we are still working hard to eliminate and educate people in our society to change behaviour and attitudes, but according to the NSPCC sadly one in three teenage girls experience sexual violence from their boyfriends. We need to look at how women are being portrayed in some sections of the media, particularly in online sites.
If you ever wondered why I go on about this stuff as much as I do, the transcript of the debate will give you a good idea. Every day women are beaten, raped, mutilated or killed, denied education and denied their equal right to power and participation in government. That's not a situation we should tolerate, either here or internationally.
The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal this year is in aid of Refuge, a charity which supports women and children who have been through domestic violence. Yesterday actor Sir Patrick Stewart told of his experience of having to protect his mother from his violent father. A few newspaper articles and a debate on a Thursday evening alone won't change things for the many women whose lives are made intolerable. It will take sustained national and international effort for many years to come. Everyone involved in politics should be working towards the aim of eliminating violence against women.