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15 December 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 7:20am

MPs have a chance to save women’s lives this week

The Istanbul Convention could be enshrined in UK law. 

By sophie walker

At a local branch meeting of the Women’s Equality Party (WE) earlier this year, a young woman asked me: “What’s the point of this party if we don’t all agree on what women’s equality looks like? I don’t want a version of equality based on what men have.”

It’s a question I am often asked. Another version goes: “Do you call yourself a feminist and if so how do you define that?”

So much time goes into theorising definitions of feminism and equality. For me it’s very clear. I am a feminist because I want to live equally. At its most basic: I want an equal right to live.

Women do not have this fundamental right. We are murdered, abused and beaten because of our sex. Some men protest this. Men kill other men, they say; many more men die, for example, in battle. Violence is violence and gender has nothing to do with it. But it does. The harm done to women by men is far higher because society places women beneath men. And hierarchy often brews violence against those on the lower rungs.

Feminism has fought many battles. Our sisters before us fought for the vote and fought to be seen, to break down stereotypes of the jobs and roles women may reach for. Our generation’s task is not less urgent. We are dealing with death and cultural imprisonment on a massive scale. A tidal wave of misogyny rolling across the United States tells women to submit or suffer. In Brussels last week I sat with feminists from France, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, who told how nationalism across Europe is targeting women – restricting reproductive rights while demanding power over and access to their bodies.

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The world needs feminism now like never before. Because feminism is very clear. We’re not groping for the answers to this violence. We’re not puzzling over policy. WE know what we can and must do.

We can end violence against women in three ways: prevention, protection and prosecution. Note the word: “end”. It’s a vital point to clarify. For too long other parties have approached this issue with a view to managing violence against women, or at best seeking to mitigate it.

To prevent violence, we must teach the next generation that women’s bodies are their own. We must teach them what consent means, what a healthy sexual relationship looks like, and that women are people with equal rights to pleasure and respect. We must counter racist sexual violence and harassment. WE believes we still lack an education system with mandatory, funded, specialist sex education is one of the biggest political failings of our time. Its absence fuels ever-rising rates of sexual violence that now occur inside the classroom too. We are damaging our children.

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Not only do we fail to prevent but we fail to protect. We fail to care for women and girls who have experienced violence because we fail to adequately fund the services they require and to understand the myriad ways in which women are abused. Women’s centres are on their knees from lack of money. Refuges are closing, rape counselling is reduced. Support for disabled women who suffer disproportionately from domestic violence goes unfunded because it doesn’t fit the model of a cheap, generic service. It’s time to scrap the commissioning model that limits services and funding. WE say: award grants and award them to the people who know what they are doing: specialist services led by and for women.

The story of how we fail to prosecute those who do violence is perhaps the best known one of all. Society still asks a woman why she was raped rather than asking her rapist to account for his action. Yet we insist that it’s down to women to improve the system by reporting. The number of reported rapes in England and Wales rose 123 percent over the last four years. The conviction rate in 2015-2016 was 7.5 percent. There were no successful prosecutions for forced marriage. WE say: train the country’s police and judiciaries to understand the different forms of sexual violence and ruthlessly root out those who do not do their job in supporting and defending survivors; and ensure prosecutors and police know exactly what is required for suspects to be charged, to make sure every case has the best chance of being prosecuted.

A fundamental framework for of this would help. There is one. It’s the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention. It sets standards for governments to meet when tackling violence against women and girls: supporting vital services, funding public awareness and education campaigns, ensuring effective investigation of any allegation of violence and ensuring that culture, custom, religion or tradition are not considered justification for such acts.

The UK government committed four years ago to ratify the Istanbul Convention. It still hasn’t done so. In the meantime 582 women in the United Kingdom have died at the hands of men, and millions more have been attacked, assaulted and threatened.

The Women’s Equality Party has campaigned for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention since WE were founded in Spring 2015. On Friday December 16, there is chance to finally make it happen. SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford will present a bill to Parliament to make it pass into UK law. If 100 MPs turn up and vote the Bill will move to the next stage. WE have mobilised our thousands of members to contact their MPs to ensure they turn up in person and WE will be there on Friday to support every MP who arrives. WE say: it’s time to do politics differently. A collaborative, non-partisan approach can protect women and prevent violence against them.