Make the most of International Womens Day

SOME campaigns are for causes whose aims and objectives are so obvious, you wonder why anybody actually has to campaign for them. Other campaigns may be for such a large proportion of society that you’d think sheer weight of numbers would enough to deliver those campaign aims.

Take International Women’s Day, which falls this year on Wednesday (8 March). Women make up near enough half Earth’s population. And it is difficult to see how anybody could credibly argue against a world without gender-based violence, where men and women share equality of opportunities and access to resources and justice.

And yet, here we are again: more than 100 years after the first National Women’s Day in the USA – the precursor to International Women’s Day – we have another annual day to highlight the ongoing campaign for women’s rights. Why?

Some 37 years ago, on 6 March 1986, a woman was raped at her home by a gang of burglars. The attack dominated headlines and news bulletins for days. The woman was 21 years old and a virgin. The home was a vicarage. Her father was a vicar – and both him, and the woman’s then-boyfriend received fractured skulls. The woman was Jill Saward. Six years later, she would become my wife.

In 1991, Jill Saward waived what was left of her anonymity to write a book about her ordeal as part of a near-30 year campaign to improve the way victims and survivors of gender-based violence are treated. Her campaign came to an abrupt end in January 2017, when she suffered a stroke and died.

Jill Saward saw many positive changes for victims and survivors.

Some changes came about as a direct result of the public outrage at the way Jill herself was treated. These changes include the strengthening of anonymity laws and the right to appeal against unduly lenient sentences.

Other changes came about as a result of the campaigning that she, and many other campaigners for women’s justice did – these include a ban on defendants directly cross-examine complainants, and limits on the questions that can be asked about the previous sexual history of a complainant.

But despite these – and many other changes – the law is still not fit for purpose when it comes to protecting people from gender-based violence. Let me add a caveat: I know that men are also victims of sexual violence; but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is women who are the perpetrators and men who are the abusers; so on International Women’s Day, please excuse me for concentrating on women.

In January, the Crown Prosecution Service published a summary of its statistics for the period from 1 July to 30 September 2022. It headlined the release by trumpeting a 13.7 per cent increase in “the volume of suspects charged with rape” – from 666 in the previous six months to 757. They highlight that this was the fifth consecutive quarter where this figure has risen.

Any increase in the number of rape allegations that lead to a charge has to be welcomed. But I can get excited about the CPS “success story”. Those two figures average out at less than 3,000 rape charges in the year. But, also in January, the Home Office released data showing that in the 12 months to September 2022, there were 70,633 rapes reported to English and Welsh police forces – the area covered by the CPS – and a further 199,021 other sexual offences on top of this.

The statistics show that only four per cent of the 70,633 rape cases reported to the police result in a charge. But a charge isn’t the end of the story. Charges may be dropped by the CPS and suspects may be found not guilty.

The statistics released by the CPS in January showed a significant fall of almost 17 per cent in the number of completed rape prosecutions; and a drop of more than seven per cent in the number of convictions for rape.

Despite the successful campaigning by Jill Saward and many others, there is still much to do. When Jill died, I vowed to continue her campaign. I haven’t done much – certainly not by her standards. But the situation for victims and survivors is so bad that it could be argued that we don’t need to continue a campaign, but to start a fresh one.

This International Women’s Day, there will no doubt be claims on social media and elsewhere that “we don’t need an International Women’s Day”, or calls for an International Men’s Day (there already is one, on 19 November).

Such a response is mild compared to the abuse that women in the public eye face on social media. And that response to women is a symptom of the same attitude that leads to so many cases of sexual violence.

If a significant part of society treats women as second-class citizens when it comes to speech and words, then it can hardly be a surprise when parts of that society treats women as second- class when it comes to actions.

While the law and criminal justice processes do need to change to improve the way victims and survivors are treated; it is society’s attitudes that need to change if we are to reduce the number of new victims. And that’s not a women’s issue. It’s a man’s issue.

And so, if you are a man, use this International Women’s Day to consider what you can do to reduce sexual violence against women and girls. Challenging hate speech, misogyny, and the abuse of women online and in person is a good place to start.