The Most Important Political Event For Women In 2016 Is Happening On Friday
The Debrief: ...and you probably haven't heard about it
Sexism’s everywhere, which is travesty, but there you have it. However, a group of activists and MPs is on the brink of making life better for women in the UK and – with your help – they could be about to make a policy change, which could affect a societal change, which could make the lives of women in this country exponentially better.
The 2016 Femicide Census, released earlier this month, found that 936 women were killed by men in England and Wales because they were women. Cuts have affected women’s services - Women’s Aid reported that 6,337 out of more than 20,000 women looking for help at a refuge were turned away last year. Cash-strapped refuges are closing or having to turn women away.
However, the Istanbul Convention could change this. It’s a Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women – Britain has signed it, but done nothing to implement the agreement in law. Eighteen countries have already ratified it, including some with shaky records on women’s rights, such as Turkey and Poland. And yet, Britain hasn’t. The treaty was open for signature in 2011.
On Friday 16 December, finally, Parliament votes on whether to implement the measures the UK has signed up for. It needs 100 MPs to vote in favour of ratifying it in order for the Bill to pass.
While there are many steps until the Bill is given Royal Assent and enshrined in UK law, this is a necessary step in order to guarantee victims of sexual and domestic violence a base level of support. If it goes through the protection offered to women and girls will be unprecedented.
If you are a survivor of gender-based violence, you will know that the assistance you get is based on which postcode you live in. If you live on the right street you’ve got a better chance of getting help, but if you live on a neighbouring road, well, sorry but there’s little that can be done to help. This is patently wrong.
'Anyone who has ever worked with victims of domestic violence or sexual violence knows that there is a postcode lottery of service provision,' Labour MP Jess Phillips tells me, she has been working alongside campaigners to get this to the vote. 'It’s not just about access to refuges depending on where you live, but there are different police responses, there will be a different level of certainty about whether you’ll ever get justice and/or support; and the Istanbul Convention gives a real opportunity to implement a baseline for what we legally tolerate in this country for those victims. Successive governments will no longer be able to play with the standards and there will be a standard.'
The word 'tolerate' is telling. Phillips agrees. 'We tolerate the murder of women as part of our society. It’s not just girls having their bra-straps snapped. We tolerate so much we are immune almost to the horror of domestic violence,' she says.
Phillips is working to get MPs to get to the House of Commons to vote this week. Jeremy Corbyn urged his MPs this weekend to vote for the Bill, and Phillips is confident they will get the numbers to vote for it, but there’s no room for complacency because there is still a risk it won’t pass.
The vote is on Friday, which is the day most MPs go to their respective constituencies around the country to hold surgeries. 'And it’s the last Friday before Christmas,' says campaigner Becca Bunce. 'But equally it’s 50% of each constituency that the MPs are voting for. They’re showing up to make sure that women are protected against violence and so they can get the right services if they experience it.'
The group who helped move the languishing Convention’s objectives to the top of the pile are all young women. Bunce, 30, is working with Robyn Boosey, 29, and Rachel Nye, 28. Bunce and Boosey were chatting online a couple of years ago about maybe starting a book club, when Boosey spotted an article saying the UK still had not ratified the convention. Right there on Facebook Chat, they decided to do something about it.
I met them at the Bill’s launch event in Westminster to discuss the importance of getting this legislation through. Bunce works in the charity sector and has gone part-time because of the level of campaigning needed to bring it to the attention of politicians and the media. Financially challenging, yes, but a sacrifice she’s willing to make. 'This is one of the first laws I’ve seen where things are brought together and seen in context as gender-based violence,' she explains. 'A man once said to me ‘the problem with this convention is it’s too ambitious, just like women’ – and that was the point where I was locked in. That’s when I thought ‘let’s do this’. The aims the Bill sets out would provide a strong comprehensive framework of support for women.'
Marie* knows what value a comprehensive framework would mean to her. She escaped an abusive relationship – her ex subjected her to a sexually violent attack that landed her in hospital – and Marie found she needed to build her confidence and personality up from the very bottom up.
'Leaving the house was difficult, doing everyday things was difficult – just making a decision, like deciding whether to have a sandwich or not – because my confidence was so bad,' she says. Having a 24-hour rape helpline would have made all the difference to her, and that is something the Istanbul Convention would guarantee for women. 'Rape Crisis helplines aren’t open 24 hours. People don’t realise this. So when you’ve had a bad day and you need to talk about something that’s happened to you, there isn’t a trained professional you can call up.'
The relationship lasted for four months and ended four years ago, and Marie, 29, says that the relationship was a 'toxic Disney' romance. 'Like most domestic violence relationships it escalated quickly. You quickly fall in love, and the violence came in stages so you didn’t realise it was happening. I think that’s the thing – you have to re-learn your own mind and that’s why these services are vital. I’m afraid for the women who aren’t going to have these services.'
Marie was given help by the group Solace Women’s Aid after someone approached her with information about the organisation when she was in hospital. Solace did things like give her new bedding because she didn’t want to sleep on the sheets she’d been raped on. 'I wonder – if I hadn’t had called them, would I STILL be in that relationship? Would I still be alive? Afterwards I was deemed high risk and if someone hadn’t taken that time to listen to my story and someone hadn’t said: ‘OK we can send someone to sort out benefit claims, we can make sure you have an alarm system in your house so if that person comes round you’re safe…' She trails off.
It all started off as an online petition but, on Friday, it will go before our elected representatives as a Bill of Parliament. If they vote it through it will become an Act and, finally, be made law. Unfortunately, violence against women has been much discussed in 2016 and we’re a long way from being able to offer those who experience it the protection they need. All is not lost, as this year draws to a close there’s stuff you can do to push things forward and keep this issue on the agenda.
There is still a risk this Bill won’t go through. The vote is on a Friday, and it’s the last Friday before Christmas. Contact your MP and ask them if they will be voting to ratify the Istanbul Convention. This is a story of people power, of women’s power. This is a chance to change our culture, a chance to make history.
*names have been changed to protect identities
Photos: KE Januszek
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