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24 February 2024

Reem Alsalem on the biggest obstacles to ending violence against women

The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls discusses the rights of refugees, sex-based violence in Gaza, and why sex and gender must not be conflated.

By Hannah Barnes

Reem Alsalem isn’t frightened of controversy. Central to fulfilling her brief as the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls is her insistence that sex and gender must not be conflated, and should be recorded in data. She also acknowledges that rights can clash – for example, those of women and of transgender people, both of whom are protected under the UK’s Equality Act.

Alsalem has made several high-profile interventions in this space, most recently branding the World Health Organisation’s attempt to draft guidelines on trans healthcare “one-sided”. She has also voiced deep concern over the detrimental impact that the changes put forward in Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill could have on women and girls. Alsalem, rightly it turned out, noted that the Scottish government had failed to set out the impact of self-identification “for the exceptions under the Equality Act that are provided based on sex”.

We met in a central London hotel for a press briefing at the end of her official ten-day visit to the UK. With rimless glasses, brown tweed blazer, skirt and boots, Alsalem had the air of a professor – the young, engaging type. The room had been laid out with rows of desks, each with a notepad and pen, as though we were about to sit an exam. As it turned out, I was the sole journalist to attend, so we moved the tables together.

Alsalem was quick to praise the UK: it didn’t “shy away” from tackling new, emerging phenomena, she said, citing legislation to address coercive control and stalking. But she sees much room for improvement, not least in changing the way our laws frame these matters. “I think there is benefit from emphasising that it’s not just ‘nice to have’; upholding the safety and dignity of women and girls, protecting them from torture and violence, is actually a human rights obligation.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the discourse surrounding immigration, she said. “If you have an obligation to protect and assist all women and girls that are survivors of violence, and to prevent violence, that obviously applies to the most vulnerable, and those most at risk. That applies also, therefore, to migrants and refugees and asylum seekers.” She believes the UK government’s approach disproportionately affects women and girl migrants. Her request to see a holding centre for migrants during her visit was not granted.

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A Jordanian national, Reem Alsalem was born in Cairo, Egypt. She studied at the city’s American University before graduating from Oxford with a master’s in human rights law. She speaks five languages. A career civil servant, for 17 years Alsalem worked around the globe with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Since 2016 she has been an independent consultant on gender issues and the rights of refugees and migrants.

It is perhaps because of this work that she recognises the importance of acknowledging biological sex. In the UK, a woman is killed by a man every three days and one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, she pointed out. Much of that violence is sex-based. “It’s clear that there’s very little reference to male violence against women and girls as a concept [in the UK],” Alsalem told me. “I think that is problematic because we continuously then dilute the phenomenon.” We must remember, she said, that the majority of the victims of sex-based violence are females and that its perpetrators are primarily male.

To change this, she said, the government must place more emphasis on protecting women and girls. While the UK has a minister for women and equalities (Alsalem met the current minister, Kemi Badenoch, during her visit) this wasn’t enough. The portfolio needs to be upgraded, she argues, with a separate ministry for equality and women. (Badenoch and others who have held the post have simultaneously held another demanding cabinet position.) Other countries have done this, Alsalem said, citing Spain as one example. “You need that figure that can really galvanise and bring together all the other ministries that work on this issue, ensuring that the matter is mainstreamed, and that it’s really addressed.”

Responsibility for reducing violence against women and girls (VAWG) sits with the Home Office. But there is a role for the Ministry of Justice, too, while the equality brief sits under the Cabinet Office. “There does not appear to be a coherent approach to crucial legislation,” she said.

Alsalem has plenty of ideas of how Westminster and the devolved nations could better serve women and girls. Her visit to the UK was filled with meetings with a variety of actors. In the Family Court, for instance, she wished to see the urgent prohibition of the use of “parental alienation” allegations in child custody cases (when one parent claims the other has deliberately “alienated” their children from them, an argument campaigners fear is often used by fathers accused of abuse to silence victims) and the end of the promotion of “contact at all costs”. Government funding issues are “very present”, she said, in all her discussions with women and victim organisations, often the first port of call for the most vulnerable. Budgets have been squeezed, and the government tendering process often favoured larger, non-specialist providers of services, she said. The UK’s policy of no recourse to public funds for those without a permanent right to remain also causes major difficulties for some women, trapping them with abusive husbands or partners on whom they depend on economically.

Underpinning all this was the need to collect proper data; data disaggregated by sex and by gender, as well as by legal residency status and ethnicity. The UK’s data collection, she said, is “inadequate”. Alsalem found inconsistencies across the same institutions – the police for example – in the way data was collected, depending on geography. This issue was, she said in her official report to the UK government, “the single biggest obstacle to advancing on ending VAWG as it makes it impossible to measure progress, identify trends and inform related policies”.

Alsalem’s insistence on recognising the difference between sex and gender has landed her in trouble. She has been on the receiving end of two open letters signed by NGOs and women’s groups, accusing of her being “anti-trans”, an allegation she forcefully rejects. “Why is it so problematic for women, girls, and also men, to say, ‘This is important; many of our needs emanate from being female, or male, and there are certain instances where it’s proportionate, legitimate and perfectly necessary to keep a space single sex’?” While “that doesn’t apply to everything in life”, it is important, Alsalem believes, for prisons, women’s shelters and sport.

She conceded that her role can be a “double-edged sword”. “It allows you to push the envelope and take on issues and help society think them through… I feel that is what I was appointed to do, and if I can’t have the courage to do this, then how can we expect others to do that?” Yet she has also experienced a backlash. “It’s been hard at times,” she said. “But it comes with the job.”

On Gaza and Israel, too, Alsalem has faced criticism. In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks of 7 October, London’s victim commissioner, Claire Waxman, wrote to Alsalem to ask why the UN had stayed silent. A few days before we met, Alsalem made a strong statement alleging that “grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” had been perpetrated by Israeli soldiers in Gaza. She, along with the UN’s special rapporteur in the Palestinian territories, claimed to have received “credible” reports that Palestinian women and girls had been “subjected to multiple forms of sexual assault”, including rape and strip-searches. Israel denies the claims.

“We have condemned, obviously, what happened on 7 October, and since then,” she told me. “We have condemned the hostage taking, the killings. We have said that where any crimes have happened, including sexual violence, it should be impartially investigated, and those [accused] should be brought to justice.” Alsalem said she has contacted Israeli NGOs and received no response, and has requested to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories, but has so far not been successful: “I have tried. But I cannot make sweeping statements about what may or may not have happened if I am not receiving [evidence].”

This won’t be the last we hear from the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls: Reem Alsalem is not afraid of involving herself in controversial subjects, including the gender transition process and conversion therapy. In her statement issued to the government after we met, she took the opportunity to warn policymakers that any law banning conversion therapy should be drafted extremely carefully. It “must take account of the fact that many young women who express a desire to ‘transition’ socially and/or medically may in fact be same-sex attracted, or experiencing other issues, such as neurodiversity or dealing with past trauma,” she wrote. “Legislation should never prevent these young women being supported holistically and should ensure transition does not become the only option it is acceptable to discuss with them.” As the UK and other countries continue to make legislation in this thorny territory, it will be fascinating to see what Alsalem says next.

[See also: Where does Ukraine go from here?]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything