Gone are the days in the UK when women could not vote, own property, be educated, or hold positions of authority. Thankfully, on paper at least, society now no longer believes that domestic violence should be considered a private matter, or that sexual violence in the home doesn’t happen. We are lucky enough to live in an age of such freedoms thanks to the sacrifice and determined fight of thousands of women before us.
Because of this, I sometimes hear it said that the quest for equality is over – that there is nothing stopping women from achieving everything we want to achieve, and there is nothing left to fight for.
But tell that to the woman who, at eight months pregnant, is fleeing domestic violence. Her partner has been tracking her every move, taken away her money, and beats her regularly. She approaches her local council for help. The council do not explain to her, as they should, that she is entitled to make a homelessness application because of her situation. Instead they try to help her find new rented accommodation, and fail to offer accommodation in the interim – she is left homeless.
Tell that to the women who were attacked by the ‘black cab rapist’, drugged and raped in the back of a taxi. They went to the police to report the crime. The police failed to properly investigate their claims of rape. Not only did those women have to suffer twice by experiencing the attacks in the first place and then not being taken seriously, but their attacker was free to continue his violent assaults on up to another 100 women.
It’s obvious that there is still much work to be done. Thankfully, our task is made easier by the human rights legislation passed by the last Labour Government in 1998. The Human Rights Act places a positive obligation on the state to prevent human rights violations. In practice, it means police have to investigate when people make allegations of rape, and that local authorities must step in to provide help to victims of domestic violence.
Now the Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act. They’re also threatening to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights – the last line of defence for victims.
The Our Human Rights campaign this week shows us how important human rights are for protecting vulnerable people. It references the two cases I describe above in particular, where the Human Rights Act was used to overturn the decision to deny shelter to a woman seeking refuge from domestic violence, and to challenge a decision by police not to properly investigate crimes committed by the black cab rapist.
There are many other examples of where human rights can make a difference in helping to protect vulnerable people, particularly women.
The 66,000 women and girls in the UK estimated to have experienced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The women trafficked into this country as children to marry much older men, and subsequently subjected to extreme sexual violence and forced into prostitution.
And all the three million women across the UK that have experience rape, domestic violence, trafficking, forced marriage or other violence every year.
Whilst hard-fought for legislation exists to protect against most of these events, there are very often gaps, because no legislation can possibly foresee all the potential cases that might arise within a given context.
The landscape is also changing. With technological developments come new threats and challenges to the safety of women and girls online. So-called ‘Revenge Porn’, ‘sexting’ amongst children, hate-speech often filled with threats of sexual violence and directed at women who dare to voice their opinions on social media. There are all prime examples of issues that legislation is currently struggling to deal with effectively.
The Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights are able to fill these gaps, both because they have a sound overall vision of what it means to be treated with dignity as an equal citizen, and also because they allow individuals to challenge greater powers when such rights are undermined.
Under this government, we have witnessed a regression in women’s human rights. The use of community resolutions for cases of domestic violence has increased by nearly 250% since 2009. The drop in prosecutions and convictions for rape, child sex offences and domestic violence, even though reported offences are going up. Not to mention the cumulative impact of cuts to police, councils, health budgets. For those experiencing domestic violence, 230 women a day are being turned away from refuges that have experienced cuts and do not have the capacity to help them.
The Tory threat to dismantle our human rights framework is just another example of their campaign against women’s rights, and Labour must stand up against it.
Charlotte Thomas is a Campaigns Officer for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights
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