As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8th, it is important to recognise that the struggle for equality has come a long way to give us women many rights that we often take for granted. The right to vote, to divorce and even to drive are still withheld from women in certain places. It is also no exaggeration to say that women’s rights are under serious threat, with gains made over the last century being clawed back by right-wing political agendas all over the world. The movement to advance women’s development and equality is going through a difficult period, which is not made any easier by certain media cheerleaders who take any opportunity to shout women down. The forces and motivations in today’s world that are endangering women’s advancement challenge us to consider whether progress can be sustained.
The tragedy of Caroline Flack taking her own life encapsulates so many of the problems faced by women in the public eye. A beautiful and talented woman saw herself at the centre of a media circus, when she was clearly struggling and needed privacy and support in what I’m sure were very complex and difficult circumstances. Even those with the thickest skin would find social media pile-ons that rip into your appearance, your personal life and your character difficult to deal with, but the sad truth is that this is the nature of the beast now. If you are working in a job that is in the public eye, you can’t escape the vicious side of the media.
I know from my own experience that positive news stories reflecting achievements are obviously welcome. Those that were written when I was the MP for Crewe and Nantwich, I shared on my own social media happily. However, having the positive sadly comes at a price – that reporters will also be there to see you when you undoubtedly make mistakes. For as long as the public clicks on links and buys the tabloids, showing a desire to hear such stories the market for grubby news will never change. This is the problem with ‘corporate media’. Its job isn’t to inform the public but instead to make money through targeted advertisement, sensationalist stories and spreading fear and anxiety. If we want to see actual change to the way the press operates, then we must recognise that the press will always be constrained and controlled by the society in which it operates. It is ultimately up to politics to create the press that it wants.
I was not surprised in the wake of the terrible news of Flack’s death that some protectors of the machine have been quick to start shifting the blame towards the Crown Prosecution Service. We must be extremely cautious, in my opinion, about blaming the CPS as the progress that they have made around domestic violence is already incredibly fragile. We must not give anyone the chance to weaken the chances of prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence.
Domestic violence overwhelmingly effects women and children, yet it was not taken seriously in the UK until 1971, when the first shelter for abused women was set up in Chiswick. The law has moved on since then, and domestic violence – as well as marital rape and forced marriage – has since been made a criminal offence in the UK.
We know that here in the UK, cuts to social services affect the options available to women in abusive relationships. Budget cuts have resulted in closures of women’s shelters up and down the country. Domestic abuse services have gone from funding crisis to funding crisis, as local governments budgets have been squeezed and vital lifelines to women and children wanting to escape the abuse have been cut off. Teamed with cuts to police force numbers, it is no surprise that many cases of abuse never even make it to trial, or victims give up bothering to try to get justice.
Criticism aimed at the CPS could have a negative impact on the progress that has been made, which includes significant increase in support for victims. We must not give the right-wing any excuse to attack any protections that women currently have, or make it potentially more difficult for them to escape danger. And don’t think it won’t happen. Just look how in America, a man who boasted about sexual assault and grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ was elected to the highest office in government. Or how Russia now has no domestic violence law after dramatically taking a huge step backwards in 2017, decriminalising certain forms of domestic violence.
Let’s not forget that victims of domestic abuse will often become reluctant to pursue complaints against partners, but also abusers are likely to have done it before and do it again. With on average two women a week being killed at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, we must not take the risk.
I stand with women against the abuse that is aimed at them in the mainstream media and on social media. Kindness is definitely under threat in modern life, and mental health support has become increasingly difficult to access. But I also stand with those who have fought tirelessly for domestic violence support. It is possible to be shocked and sad that Caroline took her life, whilst at the same time taking the abuse allegations seriously and wanting to see a more responsible and kinder media.