It didn't actually sound much like this as a. I nearly started crying and b. I nearly lost my voice. Which meant I rambled a bit. But it was well received.
I've been asked to speak to you about why feminism is still relevant in the 21st century. And I have to admit, it’s hard to know where to start, because there are so many reasons why, so many reasons why the battle for liberation from the patriarchy is not over, so many reasons why women and men aren’t equal.
But when on Sunday night a charity called Nia Central tweeted a list of names and ages, I realised what I wanted to talk to you about. Those names were:
• Susan McGoldrick, 47
• Tanya Turnball, 24
• Alison Turnball, 44
• Kirsty Treloar, 20
• Karen Climpson, 46
• Claire O’Connor, 38
• Kathleen Millward, 87
• Marie McGrory, 39
• Rebecca Holmes, 47
• Sarah Laycock, 31
• Zudba Bi, 34
• Josephine Gilliard, 42
• Cheryl Tariah, 17
• Patricia Cairns, 42
• Sarah Gosling, 41
I doubt you will have heard these names before, or come across them on the news. But these 15 women have all been murdered since 1st Jan as a result or allegedly as a result of domestic violence. So far this year, a woman or girl has been murdered every 3.8 days as a result of domestic violence. A recent home office report found that nearly half of all women homicide victims were murdered by their current or ex-partner.
To me, the reason we still need feminism today is because we are in a crisis of violence against women and girls. The list of names I have read out is proof to that. Women are being killed every few days by their partners and ex-partners. In Bristol, there are on average 130 rapes per month, 80,000 nationally each year. Across the world, 60 million girls will be sexually assaulted on their way to school every year, and 1 in 3 adult women will be a victim or survivor of rape or sexual assault. An estimated 70,000 women living in the UK have undergone female genital mutilation, and up to 7,000 girls remain at high risk of having it done to them. Across the world 3 million girls are at risk annually. Things are so bad, that in the UK teenage girls are now at a higher risk of intimate partner violence than adult women – at 1 in 3 as opposed to 1 in 4. 200 million women are missing across the world as a result of gender based violence.
This is a crisis. This is femicide. Both the UN and Amnesty International are quite clear that violence against women and girls is the greatest human rights violation of our time. Every day women are being raped, assaulted, cut and murdered.
And what do we hear about this?
Well – had you heard of any of the women on my list?
Meanwhile, justice is all too often denied women victims and survivors of violence. There have never been any prosecutions for practising FGM in this country. The conviction rate for rape in the UK remains stagnant at 6.5%. Today a report revealed that police are still failing to take rape seriously, putting an average of 12% of reported rapes as a ‘no crime’, even if the alleged victim has not said that no crime took place. Police forces still aren’t joining up the dots on serial rapists, and they’re still not linking up how violence against women happens – how it might start with harassment and continue to rape. Although, I need to say, Operation Bluestone in Bristol which deals with rape and sexual violence are better than most and are leading the way. But this is in part thanks to pressure and collaboration with women’s groups.
And when it comes to the murders – well what if I told you that a man who beat his wife to death in 2010 was jailed for 18 months, because the judge said that he was an upstanding member of the community and this was a personal row. Or that this year, a man is appealing his sentence because he claims that murdering his ex-wife was her fault as she had a new lover. Or that our own minister of justice last year said that there was a difference between being raped by someone you know, and ‘real or violent’ rape.
These incidents sound archaic, they seem like they’re from another age. But they’re not. They’re happening now.
When we ask what our government is doing to end violence against women and girls in the UK, they know how to talk the talk. They tell us it’s a priority. But their actions do not bear this out. The government spending cuts are slowly unravelling the hard and vital work feminists have done since the 60s to protect and support survivors of violence. A report by Professor Sylvia Walby has found that 230 women leaving violent relationships are being turned away from refuges every day. Refuge provision has been decimated. Support workers are instead advising women to go sleep at Occupy camps – themselves not free of sexual violence – because they have no-where for them to go. 31% of national funding to domestic support services has been cut. Small organisations have had 70% of their funding cut, whilst the big charities have lost 30% of theirs. Meanwhile, cuts to legal aid and other benefits will make it harder for women trying to leave violent relationships, whilst the legal aid changes risk women having to be questioned by their abusers in court. The government is turning back the clock on the vital and life-saving work that has happened to end violence against women and girls. It’s pretty stark – the government spending cuts will lead to the deaths of more women.
And it isn’t just the government. Other areas of public life continue to refuse to take violence against women and girls seriously. Whether it’s the teacher who responds to a girl’s complaint of sexual harassment that ‘boys will be boys’, or Brian Paddick’s Leveson evidence yesterday that the Met covered up its failings when it came to dealing with rape.
So, to return to the original question that I was asked to come and talk about. Why is feminism still relevant in 2012? Because I believe that feminism is the key starting point to ending to violence against women and girls. It was the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that started the change; that started to get violence against women taken seriously. It was that movement that built the refuges, the rape crisis centres. That got violence on the agenda. But we haven’t yet ended the violence. We still need to stand together and fight to end it. We need to fight the causes of violence against women and girls, and, unfortunately, we have to fight to keep in place the support services that survivors need. This is a feminist fight, but it’s also everyone’s fight. If we all stand under the banner of liberation from patriarchy and call for an end to the violence, then all together we can make it stop.
The crisis of violence against women and girls is met with an overwhelming, deafening silence. We are facing a huge humanitarian crisis, and instead of it being headline news, the subject of international summits, the focus of government campaigns, there’s just this silence. Even though there is so much evidence to show how the spending cuts are impacting on women’s safety, this is not making headline news. It’s time to break the silence. To me, VAWG is the key feminist issue. And it is why I am still a feminist, and why we still need feminism in 2012.