An end to violence against women

This is the speech that Karen Ingala Smith gave at the London meeting, A Woman’s Place is Resolute. She spoke on our second demand.

The government must make the end to men’s violence against women and girls a priority. Sustainable funding for independent women led services for women subjected to violence against women and girls, must be fully resourced by central government alongside the implementation of statutory relationships and sex education in schools.

You can see the film of her speech here and read the live tweets at #WPUKResolute



Today – after an 18 month delay – the government published its draft Domestic Abuse Bill which amongst other things aims to make it easier to prosecute perpetrators of both physical and emotional abuse, and provide more support for victims.

It could be said that in pushing ahead with the bill at all, in the light of the ongoing shambles that is Brexit, the government is showing how serious it is about tackling domestic violence and abuse. You might be forgiven for thinking that we have already got demand three sorted, but I’m not at all convinced.

Research accompanying the draft bill estimated that the social cost of domestic abuse in 2016-17 was 66 billion pounds of which £724 million was spent on victim’s services in the same period, which according to Women’s Aid works out as just £362 per person invested in supporting survivors to safely escape domestic abuse – that really isn’t going to go very far.

nia, the charity I work for, was one of many that responded to the consultation that preceded the draft bill.  One of the main concerns that we expressed was that the government was even considering a Domestic Abuse Bill – rather than a Violence Against Women and Girls Bill and when you consider that the Government actually has a Violence Against Women And Girls Strategy, the bill is in some ways a backwards step.

The UK has signed but not ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women, a major international framework targeting the prevention of violence against women and girls, victim protection and ending the impunity of perpetrators.  Ratifying the Istanbul Convention requires states to recognise that violence against women and girls is a result of sex inequality. I think it is telling that Westminster appears reluctant to do this.

It is true that sexual and domestic violence and abuse – and prostitution –  cross boundaries of sex, age, social class, ethnicity and culture but that does not mean that there aren’t differences in the perpetration and experience of abuse across these characteristics. There are differences as well as commonalities in the forms and rates of violence – and equally critically,  differences in access to safety, support and justice.  It certainly does not mean, as many claim – including everything I’ve seen about the draft proposed statutory definition of domestic abuse  – that domestic violence and abuse occurs ‘regardless of gender’.  Regardless of gender? Not only is this failing to recognise that sex and gender are not the same thing and that it is sex not gender that is the protected characteristic, it fails to acknowledge that socially constructed gender plays one of the most critical roles in maintaining and justifying sex inequality.

The most recent crime survey for England and Wales  recorded that 8% of women and girls (that’s 1 in 12) aged 16-59 were subjected to domestic violence and abuse (roughly ¾ from a partner or ex-partner) in the last year, this equates to an estimated 1.3 million female victims in one year – and it includes the insult of not even bothering to count violence against women aged 60 and above (which is about a quarter of all adult women).

I don’t have time tonight to tell you about how difficult it is to keep a small independent charity supporting women and girls financially viable, suffice to say that like every year I have been at nia, we are looking at starting the next financial year with a deficit budget and one that if we do not outperform, would see us closing in 12 months.  This is normal for us now, normal, but no way to develop and run services and the funding that we do get comes with ever more challenging targets, which prevent us from supporting women in the way we know they really need and anyway isn’t enough to meet demand.

There are over 500 refuges in the UK, with community-based support available in many towns and cities.  There are 44 Rape Crisis Centres in England and Wales.  The money spent on victims services would have been inconceivable to the women who set up the first services, but the reality is that is isn’t enough.  An estimated 21,084 referrals to refuges in England were declined last year, averaging over 400 declined each week, the most common reason being lack of space, and the average wait for Rape Crisis counselling is 6 months, at East London Rape Crisis, run by nia, it is 10 months.

In effect now, most services developed by women for women are ‘owned’ by local authorities through contracts.  Through competitive tendering, local authorities decide what services are needed and who is best placed to provide them and too often they have decided that low cost one-size-fits-all is more important than small independent woman-led woman-centered specialist organisations supporting only women. They often demand that we provide services to men. We’re faced with bidding for contracts which include services for men – or not doing so. And if we don’t, it might mean that the whole organisation faces closure.

Independent research repeatedly finds that women who have been subjected to men’s violence fare better in women-only spaces. Women-only spaces offer not only a physical, but also a psychological and emotional escape from men’s domination, control and violence:

  • Away from the specific man that we are escaping or who has violated us
  • Away from men in general
  • Away from men’s control and demands for attention
  • Away from the male gaze and the way that they feel entitled to rate and us
  • A space where we share in common experiences of abuse – despite all the other differences between us

 Many of the women and children we work with are terrified of males.  And yes, this includes males who identify as transgender.  One of the most important ways that we can contribute to creating a ‘safe space’ for women who have experienced men’s violence is quite simply by keeping men out. It’s partly about the psychological benefits for women created by women only spaces but also about statistics – as I outlined earlier, most sexual and domestic violence including prostitution is perpetrated by men against women and there is no credible evidence to suggest than trans identified males commit crimes of violence against women, girls and children at rates any different from those of other males and these is plenty of evidence to indicate strong links between  trans activists and sex trade supporters.

This is not about lack of compassion with male victims or people who identify as trans – it isn’t about people who identify as trans at all –it is about women; it is not about denying anyone’s human rights, anyone’s privacy and dignity. Of course not.  But it is about fighting for women’s human rights. Our right to safety, our privacy and our dignity, for some of us,  our right to life itself. It is about recognising that women have sex-based rights and protections for a reason.

If we look at sexual and domestic violence and prostitution outside of sex inequality, we’ll never be working with the root causes and therefore only ever tinkering about on the surface, dealing with symptoms not causes.  Relationships and sex education that ignores this context will have a very limited impact on prevention – regardless of whether or not it is mandatory.

I started by talking about the new Domestic Abuse Bill and whether that could mean that our demand number three is already redundant.  But when I read the PR from number 10 circulated yesterday to announce today’s release,  I noticed something that chilled me to the bones. The press release – and I stress I am talking about the press release not the draft bill itself, but even so,  the press release from number 10 Downing Street to announce the launch of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill did not even mention the words ‘woman, women or female’ once. Not once.

We will never end’s men’s violence against women, girls and children if we don’t know the difference between sex and gender, if we do not develop our responses across all forms of men’s violence against women and girls and if we minimise in any way the sex differences in perpetration and victimisation in sexual and domestic violence including prostitution.



Links to all the speeches are here:

1. Women have the right to self-organise

2. The law must work for women

3. An end to violence against women

4. Nothing about us without us

5. Sex matters





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