March is Women’s History Month and the month of International Women’s Day when we honour women and all that has been achieved throughout history for them to feel empowered.
It is also the time that we challenge inequality and gender-based abuse that means that not all women have a voice. Events in March 2021 forced the issue of violence against women and girls into the spotlight, pushing for an important discussion about the protection of women in the UK and beyond.
The murder of Sarah Everard
The murder of Sarah Everard at the start of March sparked a nationwide debate on violence against women in the UK. The shocking story made women everywhere share their own stories and experiences on walking home alone; keeping keys in their hand, tucking their hair into their coats, texting to say when they’ll be home. It made clear that the narrative when it comes to even the term “violence against women” puts the onus on women and not those perpetrating the crime, which is usually men.
The conversation brought to light what men can do to make women feel safer if they are walking behind them at night and asked them to call out abusive or problematic behaviours with their friends if they encounter them.
The man charged for Sarah’s murder was serving police officer, Wayne Couzens. This called to question the protection of women from men in powerful positions and how perpetrators of these crimes are not often challenged due to status. Vigils for Sarah were organised across the country but were physically quashed by police for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules.
The debates prompted the UK Government to reopen its call for evidence for those who have lived experiences of this abuse to inform the development of the government’s Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. By hearing these experiences, the government hopes that it will inform how they tackle these crimes. There is hope that the strategy will also protect migrant women and those that are at risk of traditional cultural abuse.
ONS figures are cause for concern
Also this month, the Office for National Statistics released figures about sexual offences in England and Wales in the past year. Not only did the report state that an estimated 618,000 women have experienced a sexual assault, but it also highlighted that minority women were more likely to experience this abuse in comparison to their white counterparts.
Campaigners such as Yazmin Khan at the Halo Project put these figures down to authorities putting “race and culture before safeguarding”. It has also been discussed that there is often a lack of police support for minority women and so they are less likely to report the crimes when they occur.
Turkey Withdraw from the Istanbul Convention
Meanwhile, further into March, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, an international agreement designed to protect women. Conservative Turkish leaders believe that the agreement undermines family values and encourages homosexuality. Femicide is a huge issue in Turkey and last year the #ChallengeAccepted social media campaign brought the issue to light. Turkey’s We Will Stop Femicide platform said that “at least 300 women were murdered in the country last year but the number could be even greater, with dozens more found dead in suspicious circumstances”. Crimes against women and girls are often seen as “hidden” crimes. Women don’t come forward because of fear of what could happen if they speak out and in many societies, feel pressured to conform to cultural norms and uphold patriarchal ideals.
For those at risk of harmful practices such as ‘honour’-based abuse, there is not always one perpetrator and they are not always male. The true figures of gender-based violence will never be known as many cases go unreported due to fear, stigma and shame. For some cultures, those challenges are entrenched within the traditional and male-controlled environments. Compliance with these harmful practices is a cultural norm and those that go against them often suffer severe consequences.
We must continue to challenge
Although conversations appear to be happening to eliminate this violence, this month — Women’s History Month — has shown there is still a long way to go to protect women. Whether that be from being attacked by walking home, while they are peacefully protesting or even when speaking out about institutionalised racism or their mental health in the media.
People in power are still failing women. The world is still fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor, for the 4.16 million girls around the world who are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation, for the 1 in 5 girls in the world who are married before they turn 18, for the migrant women who are let down by the Domestic Abuse Bill and for the women who go the police for help if they experience abuse and are turned away.
To eliminate these crimes, we must all stand in solidarity against them regardless of age, religion or gender to continue to #ChooseToChallenge inequality beyond March 2021. Every woman has the right to live without fear of violence or abuse.
Written by Shauna Lacy