[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for their support in securing this important debate.
This year, the UN’s 16 days of activism fall at the same time as the FIFA men’s World cup. FIFA decided to hold the competition in a country where women remain tied to their male guardian and need his permission for key life decisions on matters including work and travel. We also meet against the backdrop of war in Europe. As is all too familiar across the globe, women are being targeted through sexual violence. Thousands of women have been transported hundreds of miles from home and forced to build a life for themselves and their families in other countries. Our thoughts and solidarity are with them.
In the UK, we are in a cost of living crisis and in the grip of an epidemic of appalling violence committed by men against women and girls. Those two facts are inextricably linked. The epidemic includes violence at home, violence in the playground, violence in the workplace, violence on the walk home from school, violence online and across social media, and violence brought to life through the grotesque barrage of freely available extreme pornography on every corner of the internet. The violence can be short, sharp and brutal; sexual and degrading; insidious and coercive; hidden behind closed doors or hiding in plain sight—it is everywhere.
Our collective unwillingness to speak honestly about this epidemic is perhaps driven by the same thing that compounds the horrors visited on countless women and girls: shame. Unlike those women and girls, we should be ashamed—ashamed that women feel unsafe on our streets, ashamed that girls are unable to enjoy the same freedoms and experiences as boys, and ashamed that many of our public bodies are haemorrhaging trust as institutional misogyny blinds them to their basic safe- guarding obligations.
The facts speak for themselves. The number of women murder victims is at a 15-year high—I repeat, a 15-year high. Rape prosecutions and convictions are at a historic low, and countless women victims are abandoning their trials due to delays that this Government created—delays in the Crown court are at a record high.
Yet the collective response has remained essentially unchanged for generations. Instead of investing in things that would help prevent males from developing into perpetrators and improve women’s economic circumstances —education, policing, criminal justice and large-scale societal change around care—we focus on the result of that inequality, and women and girls remain reliant on “that chat”. “Don’t walk down the lane on the way home; stick to the main street.” “Keep your headphones off.” “Keep hold of your phone when you get off the bus and keep your house keys poking between your fingers.” “Don’t wear high heels. If possible, wear a big coat.” “Don’t go for a run tonight; it’s too dark.” “Stick the bins out in the morning.” “Oh, and if anything does happen, it will be your fault.” Women have to second-guess their safety on a daily basis.
Although I say the facts speak for themselves, that is only because women have fought hard to ensure the accurate reporting and gathering of sex data. A woman is killed every three days. I commend Karen Ingala Smith and her work documenting the facts through Counting Dead Women, which is a phenomenal project. Data shows that domestic violence, already endemic across Britain, skyrocketed during the pandemic. There were 260,000 domestic abuse offences between March and June 2020 alone. Research by UN Women UK found that 71% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in a public place, rising to 86% of 18 to 24-year-olds. In the first lockdown, a fifth of women and girls aged 14 to 21 were catcalled, followed, groped, flashed or upskirted, rising to 51% during the summer.
Let us look at the causes. In Bristol, the 2020 mayoral commission on domestic abuse, along with the joint strategic needs assessment, reported the variation in domestic-related abuse and crime across my city, from 7.1 per 1,000 in Redland to 79.9 per 1,000 in Hartcliffe and Withywood in my Bristol South constituency. Analysis in the UK and internationally has consistently found vulnerability to domestic violence to be associated with low income, economic strain and benefit receipt.
Earlier this month, the chief executive officers and directors of the End Violence Against Women Coalition joined more than 80 other organisations to warn that the cost of living crisis is having a devastating impact on women, putting them at greater risk of violence and abuse. It is a sobering report. Many women face the choice of staying in an abusive situation or experiencing financial hardship or destitution. Relocation to safety, disruption to employment, and access to legal advice all come with a hefty price tag. These circumstances are only worsening in the cost of living crisis, as women are dominant in low-pay, insecure work in the public sector, care, retail and hospitality. All those sectors are being squeezed, putting more and more women and children at risk of harm, destitution or even death.
At exactly the same time as demand for support to escape abuse is increasing, already overstretched specialist services have been confronted with rising bills to operate their life-saving services. Frontline organisations, such as refuges, are facing steep energy bills, and staff are covering the cost of service users from their own pockets, including feeding women who have not eaten for days.
I hope that the Minister has been listening carefully—I thank him for that—but we have had enough of listening. We do not want any more time for “that chat”. We need to raise women’s economic status up the political agenda in all our political parties. We need to help women to access paid work at decent pay levels, with access to affordable childcare. We need to ensure that benefits are made in such a way as to ensure that women do not become dependent on their male partners. We need to ensure that women are not penalised for non-contribution as a result of caring. We need to ensure that the issue of financial abuse as part of abusive behaviour is recognised in the Government’s strategy to address violence against women and girls.
There are some first steps that would help. It would be helpful if the Minister would agree to implement some of the following: put a rape and domestic abuse specialist in the police force in England and Wales; overhaul the police standards system, including vetting, training and misconduct, to ensure that victims get the best possible service and support from the police; bring in a domestic abusers register, which would allow authorities to track perpetrators and prevent them causing harm to more women; and set up specialist rape courts, which would end the traumatisation of victims by the system. Let us make the UK a beacon of progress.
Alongside that, we need a recommitment to the importance of empirical data as fact. Data must be accurately compiled and accurately sex disaggregated in order to fully understand the impact of all crimes on women and girls. To tackle endemic sexism and sex-based violence, we must count sex, just as it is vital to combat discrimination against other groups. The need to accurately record separate and additional data is obvious. The offending patterns of men and of women show the highest differential of all, so we need to monitor the sex of the victims and perpetrators of all crimes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) stated recently in this place that at least six regional police forces now record suspects’ sex on the basis of gender identity, following the advice of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Data based only on self-identified gender is not accurate data on which to build a violence against women and girls strategy, or to effectively plan services that support all victims and target all perpetrators, whatever their sex and however they identify. I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. Data is key to protecting women and girls from violence, and I hope the Minister can confirm the need for sex to be recorded by police forces in England and Wales.
We talk often in this place of equality. We often celebrate the very presence of women and girls in sporting teams, on boards, in leadership roles or in politics as an end point. It is not. For as long as every woman and girl lives in a society that remains in itself so unequal, and presents such dangers, we should perhaps pause and reflect.
Earlier this year, the UK ratified the gold standard set by the Istanbul convention, but it has decided to opt out of article 59, which protects migrant women. Does the hon. Member agree that this defeats the point of the convention? There should be equal protection for all women, and this creates a hostile and discriminatory environment for some of the most vulnerable women in the UK.
The hon. Member makes an excellent point; I agree. I am sure that the Minister, or my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), will address it later from the Front Benches.
As we reflect, let us remember that the great feminist writer and thinker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said:
“Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop.”
Let us hope that, when we gather again next year, not only have the statistics become slightly less depressing and the Government response slightly less dispiriting, but we have taken some steps, however small, toward empowering every woman and girl to believe that they have a right to live a life where they matter equally—full stop.
Order. I am going to impose an informal time limit of five minutes. If we all try to stick to that, we will get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Elliott. I am very grateful to follow the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). I reflected on what she said, and I agree with every word. For a number of years, we have heard about how much emphasis this Government place on tackling violence against women and girls, but the statistics that she outlined show that so much of that is talk. It is about time that we started delivering, and making those interventions that challenge men and male behaviour.
Let us not mince our words: this is male violence against women and girls; these are crimes perpetrated by men. In this place, men often take rather too much comfort in talk about great advances in equality, but the day-to-day lived experience of women is still poor. As the hon. Member for Bristol South outlined, we take decisions every day to protect our own safety. It is well documented that female Members of Parliament receive more abuse and harassment than their male counterparts. In 21st century Britain, that is not good enough, and we need collective action to tackle it.
I am pleased to see that some male Members have chosen to participate in the debate. I am not surprised to see my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who has always shown some support for these issues, but I want to see a few more. It would be nice to know that more of our male colleagues are genuinely concerned about our day-to-day lived experience. I lay that down as a challenge. It is rather a substantial one for the Minister: it means that he perhaps has to compensate for the lack of interest among his colleagues. I hope that he receives my chastisement on their behalf.
In the week that we heard in Parliament from Olena Zelenska about the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, we are told that as many as 30% of the women of Ukraine have been victims of sexual crimes in the conflict. That is a clear reminder that rape remains a weapon of war. We talk about the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which is good work, but what it rather euphemistically describes is the organised process of rape. We hear that in Ukraine the youngest victim is just four years old, and the oldest is 85. That is the brutality of war, but until very recently the experience of women in war was not routinely considered. I am pleased and proud that this Government have taken up that initiative—the conference was this week. However, it is all very well us telling the rest of the world and virtue signalling about the issue, but we still have to sort things out here. I am afraid that sexual violence remains a real challenge and a lived experience for everyone.
It feels a bit “first world” to talk about some of the problems that we face here, but the trauma faced by any woman who is a victim of sexual violence is significant and lifelong. We must ensure that we deliver on our promises. We have enshrined in the NHS a commitment to a lifetime therapeutic care pathway for any victim of sexual violence. In practice, that does not happen. We know that very many women still wait for counselling months and months after an incident, and we know that is a barrier to bringing perpetrators to justice. When women relive what has happened to them, they re-traumatise themselves. They need support, but the NHS commitment is just words. Up and down this country, the local commissioning required to deliver it is not happening. We see victims of sexual violence as items of evidence. Their experience of trying to secure justice is utterly dehumanising.
I could go on much longer, but I will obey your strictures, Ms Elliott. In this place, we too often approach these issues from the perspective of the pointy-elbowed middle classes, and the most vulnerable in our society are left behind. I will not stop beating up Ministers in debates like this one until we have proper protection for women in prisons. We are seeing sex offenders self-identifying as women and being able to enter women’s prisons; we had a rape only very recently. That has to be tackled. And I will not be happy, either, until someone engaged in sex work who is murdered receives as much attention as a nice, pretty middle-class girl. I will leave it there.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing the debate. I am very glad to say that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who is the spokesperson for the Scots Nats, and I never miss any of these debates. As men, we are very glad to be here.
I welcome the news that earlier this week the UK hosted the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative summit. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) asked a question on this very issue at Prime Minister’s questions this week. At business questions today, I asked the Leader of the House a question along these lines. The Government have had the summit and they have shown, through the answers that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House gave, that there is a commitment on this issue.
It is important that the UK works towards recognising sexual violence in conflict as a line that is not to be crossed, with serious repercussions for the perpetrators of such an awful crime and the violation of a woman or child’s dignity. There are numerous factors that might put a woman at greater risk of violence, but there is one that I will focus on specifically; others will touch on other subjects. The factor I will focus on is women belonging to faith groups who face persecution on the grounds of their faith and the violence that goes along with that.
Sometimes a woman’s decision to wear a headscarf or modest clothing is described as oppression, but there are many women who say that their decision to display their faith in that way is not oppressing; they find it empowering. Does the hon. Member agree that respecting the choices that women make in expressing their faith is an important aspect of society empowering women and girls?
I certainly do; as always, the hon. Lady brings an aspect to the debate that truly helps to illustrate things.
Persecutors target men, women and children in different ways and to different extents. Women invariably face a greater breadth of persecution, owing to the compounding factors of their faith and their sex, which unfortunately makes them an easy target for those who want to take advantage. It is probably no surprise that the targeting of women is strategic and malicious. Women are the ones who give birth to the next generation and bring up families. It is a great tragedy that their life-giving nature is violated by extremists and those with evil intent, as they take away their life of freedom and peace.
A report by Open Doors on the persecution of Christian women and girls explains that in countries impacted by conflict in central and west Africa—Nigeria, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo being key examples—women and girls are at high risk of abduction. The report states:
“Once taken, they are then forced to marry militants and bear children, who are used to boost the ranks of militant groups”.
Such “forced marriage” is rape by another name. Horrifically, the bodies of women and girls offer an extra dimension of conflict for extremists and perpetrators of violence to wreak their destruction and their dehumanising actions.
One example of such gender-based persecution is Leah Sharibu, who was kidnapped along with 110 other students from her school back in 2018. The Islamic State of west Africa refused to release Leah when she did not renounce her Christian faith. Leah is still waiting for release. When some of us were in Nigeria in May, we asked about her and we were hopeful that something was going to happen, but it does not seem that anything has happened. I hope that the Minister can give us some indication of what is happening. Leah has been forcibly married and raped since the age of 14. She now has two children born of that forced marriage, with little hope of being able to pass on the Christian faith that she believes in to her own children.
Regrettably, Leah’s case is just one of thousands of such cases. How is it that eight years after Daesh launched a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, with 2,763 Yazidi women and children still missing, nobody seems to be interested in this issue? I am not being critical of the Minister or the Government, but can we be given some indication about what is happening to those Yazidi women? It seems that they are off the radar for nearly everybody who I can think of.
My hope is that the Government ensure that any funding given to support women and girls around the world targets women and girls who face vulnerabilities due to their faith, with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office recognising faith as a factor in such vulnerability. Defending women and girls should encompass all aspects of the UK Government’s overseas engagements. Therefore, the Department for International Trade should seriously consider any reports of gender-specific religious persecution as it negotiates trade deals and before it signs any new trade agreements. Our Government should take care about the human rights records of countries with which they trade. Turning a blind eye to the treatment of women in a country we benefit from is not something that I wish to hear about. I want to hear about how we are moving forward progressively and positively for women and girls.
Finally—I am conscious of the time, Ms Elliott—increased efforts must be made to help women and girls who suffer violence and endure persecution because of their faith to reach safety. I will give another example: I am saddened that Pakistani Christian girl Maira Shahbaz is still in hiding after escaping her Muslim abductor in Pakistan. She is still waiting for the Home Office to grant her asylum claim. It is unbelievable. The facts are obvious; the evidence is there. The Right Rev. Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, has said:
“Tragic cases like that of Maira Shahbaz are a test case for the UK Government’s commitment to put freedom and religion front and centre in its foreign policy.”
My comments today are a new call for the Government to do just that and make freedom of religion or belief a reality for everyone across the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I will start where my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) finished: by talking about the pointy-elbowed, middle-class privilege that allows me to stand here and say that still, in 2022, we cherry-pick which victims we think are innocent and which we do not. That is why there is massive media coverage of some cases and not of others. We like our victims to be young, blonde and white, do we not? When police community support officers of my age are killed, it makes barely a headline, as in the case of Julia James. The murders of young women such as Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, whose photographs were taken by police officers, do not gain the same number of column inches as the murder of Sarah Everard. When women such as Raneem Oudeh and her mother are murdered while the police are ignoring their calls for help, we must wonder what cultural element came into that.
It is important that we stand up in this House and are prepared to use our pointy-elbowed, middle-class privilege to highlight that, in this country, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we need to get our own house in order. We need to be prepared to legislate for things such as public sexual harassment. Let us face it: countries such as Morocco have managed to legislate for that, but we still have not.
I have high hopes for my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and his private Member’s Bill. I pay full credit to police forces such as Nottinghamshire police for collecting statistics on misogyny as a hate crime, but we need that to be rolled out to more police forces across the country. In this place, we have done some great work and every year the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) stands up in the Chamber on International Women’s Day and reads that great long list—which is not getting shorter—of those women who have been murdered over the previous year. At her behest, a couple of weeks ago I met, virtually, Carole Gould and Julie Devey, the mothers of Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey Waterhouse—young women murdered by their partners. Carole and Julie have set up a new organisation, Killed Women, specifically to make sure that we listen to the victims and consider the aftereffects for those families who have lost a loved one in horrific circumstances. We all need to listen to those stories and understand the very profound impact that ongoing violence against women is having in this country.
I will speak very briefly of the work that the Women and Equalities Committee is doing on this subject. I pay tribute to you, Ms Elliott, for having been a guest in a recent session. We are looking at sexual harassment, misogyny, violence against women, and sexism in all its forms across a variety of areas in this country, whether in schools, colleges and universities—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock for the great work she did on that before she left the Committee—or in the music industry, where black women are overly sexualised. We know from the case of Child Q that black children are—I am not sure if this is even a word—adultified and treated as adults when they are still children. That still happens way too often. We heard of the horrors of being a young black woman in the music industry—they were truly horrific in the same way as the sexism in football that we heard about.
Similarly, we hear time and again about how women at university are treated appallingly and how, in too many cases, the institution does not stand up for them. I will highlight Bristol University—apologies to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for referring to her city again—because it did not support a young woman who spoke to me yesterday on this subject. When she went to the police, she was told that she had to think of the mental health of the student she was accusing of sexually harassing her. That, to my mind, is absolutely unthinkable. How are we going to empower and encourage young women to have the courage to come forward, speak of their experiences and press charges when they are being told to consider the impact on the individuals they are accusing? We know that 97% of the accusations made are truthful.
I want to pay tribute briefly, in 50 seconds or less, to—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
That will not give me an extra minute. I pay tribute to former Ministers who have worked so hard on this issue, some of whom are sitting in this room today, including Ministers from across the Home Office who worked so hard on the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and on finally getting the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 on the statute book. My message to all of us is that there is more that we can and must do. We have to keep pressing forward. If we do not do that, we will not be able to look around the globe and wring our hands in horror at the actions that we see elsewhere, when our own house needs to be in much better order.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) on securing this vital debate, although it is shame that such an important debate is not taking place on the Floor of the House, in Government time.
These annual debates are so important, not just so that we can hear the latest sad figures of violence and hold Ministers to account for the ongoing abuse and killing of women and girls, but so that we can speak about the wider context and to try to call for a better way forward.
Locally, Cheshire police tell me that arrests for domestic abuse have increased by 76% this year, and that we have the highest charge rate for stalking in the country and the third highest charge rate for sexual offences and rape. Such statistics, even positive ones, are evidence of failure, not signs of progress, because they represent change from an unacceptably low baseline. Moreover, even with higher figures for arrests, charges, prosecutions and convictions, the sad truth is that far too many women will not engage with the justice system or report what has happened to them. Women will suffer domestic abuse many times before they go to the police.
We have an appalling situation in which survivors of sexual violence can have their counselling notes read by police officers, prosecutors, defence lawyers and even the person who raped them, often in order to try to find something to make the survivor look untrustworthy or to discredit their testimony. Rape Crisis England & Wales is clear that counselling notes should be kept confidential; otherwise, survivors will continue to have to choose between the pursuit of justice—statistically futile though that may seem—and looking after their own needs and mental health. It is absolutely sick that we expect that from them, when they should be supported to see both justice and compassion.
Specialist services for survivors are on their knees, and survivors suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder—a condition more frequently suffered by survivors of child sexual exploitation and sexual violence than by veterans—find themselves in a postcode lottery, waiting years to access treatment, if they can access it at all. We cannot talk about support for victims without recognising that there needs to be vastly more funding for these services, including for support by independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister in those areas.
We need not only better policing and judicial processes, but to change our social culture itself. It is not enough to merely get better at prosecuting offences after the fact. We must ensure that we are using every legal and social lever to stop it happening in the first place. I commend the men speaking in this debate, because they recognise that violence against women and girls is a scourge that cannot be ended by the victims. We need men to work to stop this. I do not mean the small minority of men who are the perpetrators, but the majority of decent men who are horrified by the results of this violence and who can influence the behaviour of their peers.
We need a renewed focus on sex and relationships education in schools, to insist on dignity at a young age, and clear expectations and behaviour codes in the workplace. I suggest we start here, by making sure all our colleagues in this workplace are modelling that, too. We also need adverts that put the onus on men, such as those promoted by the Mayor of London that say:
“Have a word with yourself, then your mates”.
Male role models need to front such campaigns in order to change expectations, so that when lads meet in groups, whether that is in the locker room, the pub or anywhere else, they can display character and object to reactive group misogyny, no longer being bystanders implicitly supporting such behaviour.
We also need to ensure that women can no longer be financially trapped into abusive situations, or at risk of destitution when they seek to leave. Those are the kinds of holistic changes that we need to see if we are serious about ending violence against women and girls.
I know that everyone in this Chamber wants to end violence against women and girls. Our challenge is to tackle the wider context of toxic behaviour that breeds it. I hope that by next year’s debate, we will have made more progress on that fundamental task.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing the debate. I also declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, the co-chair of Conservative Friends of International Development, an ambassador for the HALO Trust, and a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for action on conflict and global Britain. To say that I am invested in this issue and in development matters would perhaps be a bit of an understatement.
I would like to give more of an international focus, given that the UK has just held the conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. In 2012, I was a junior researcher in the then Foreign Secretary’s office, and I watched William Hague, Arminka Helić and Chloe Dalton formulate the concept behind the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. I will go on to say a little more about its creation. I saw those early days as a halcyon moment—a British drive to ensure that we were leading the world in international development and tackling the issues that were so often overlooked, because when the United Kingdom stands up and leads the way on development, so many other countries follow us.
In those early years, the UK demonstrated its ability to create and lead new international initiatives and encourage greater global action—whether on women’s rights, conflict prevention, healthcare or support for multilateral organisations based on the rules-based order, we led on it. Indeed, at every summit, conference and non-governmental organisation engagement, there were always British diplomats and politicians sitting around the table, writing the resolutions, helping to push the international community and securing international buy-in. Those activities continue—they are things that we need to champion in this place and within our Government Departments. However, the creation of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012 was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. To be privy to the creation of a movement that found domestic and international support and brought 150 countries together in unity was to behold true diplomacy, leadership and statecraft.
PSVI came about because, as is so often the case, it was an overlooked issue. In every conflict and crisis zone around the world, the use of rape and sexual violence was always well documented, but justice and support for survivors went largely ignored. Horrendous accounts have been written—there are countless reports and books—including Christina Lamb’s book, “Our Bodies, Their Battlefield”, which I encourage all colleagues to read if they have not done so. It reminds us that this is not a modern-day phenomenon, but a continuous factor in conflict through the ages. In nearly every instance of conflict, rape and sexual violence is exhibited. It is used by the perpetrators as a free tool of war—used to intimidate, divide, ostracise and subjugate. For its perpetrators, it is enacted with an expectation of impunity—that, in the confines of war, these atrocious acts can be committed freely and without fear of justice or consequences. For its victims, it is an act that will live with them for the rest of their lives. They never forget it; it is often never treated; and, worst of all, they never see justice brought to bear.
The prevalence of this important issue, and the lack of international action, meant that there was an opportunity to address that oversight and engage the international community. That is exactly what our team did, and in 2012 we set up the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. We held the first conference in 2014, and this week we held our second conference, albeit a few years delayed due to the pandemic. We have demonstrated our ability to lead on this issue, but—as is always the case in this world—we can go further.
We made significant promises in 2014, with lofty goals. As the special envoy, Angelina Jolie, has said, we knew they were lofty goals, and
“there has been some progress, including a few prosecutions at the national level, the adoption of the Murad Code and the establishment of the Global Survivors Fund. But it has not been nearly enough to meet the needs of survivors, or to deter perpetrators from using rape as a weapon of war in almost every new conflict in the past decade.”
We now need to think about what we can do next. I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a new three-year strategy and £12.5 million of new funding, and the continuation of funding to the Global Survivors Fund. On that point, could the Minister clarify how much money is going to be put into the Ukraine gender-based violence fund? However, we know that political will and economic interests across the world are preventing the meaningful action that is needed. We need to think about what survivors need, and I will make two very quick points.
First, we must lead the charge and put more spending into preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence. To date, less than 1% of humanitarian relief is spent in that area. That funding gap is preventing the delivery of our ambitions, meaning that, while we might identify the problems, we are not solving them. Secondly, we must ensure a new international mechanism to lead on this specific issue, to specifically ensure that survivors are supported, crimes documented, and justice sought for those who have been raped. I will leave it there, Ms Elliott, because I am conscious of the time. Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle- Price) on securing this very important debate at a very important time.
I hoped, as I was growing up, that the world was getting better in every way. I just assumed that it was, I think as part of the post-war agreement of people. But I am constantly disappointed that my daughters are less safe than I was. When I was a student, I went out on the streets with Reclaim the Night, but my daughters, who have just left university, have been less safe at university, on the streets and online, and will be less safe at their workplaces, than I was at their age. That really depresses me. We are going in the wrong direction, so I am glad that this debate is pulling us up short and ensuring that we act to make the world better for my daughters and their daughters, as well as for women and girls not only in this country, but around the world.
Violence is all-pervasive on our streets, in a way that we take for granted as women. When I realised that men do not have to worry about holding keys in their hands as they walk about—I have done it instinctively all my life—and that there would be a freedom if I did not have to worry as I walked around, it was an alarming moment. It showed me the difference that there should be in our world.
I congratulate everyone who joined Reclaim the Streets in Roehampton just a couple of days ago, demonstrating against violence against women and girls by men. They marched through the streets of Roehampton all together. It started last year, and it was an even bigger demonstration this year, with men and women, standing together in our local community, speaking out about something that we want to see an end to.
Violence is at an all-time high, and convictions for rape are at an all-time low. Women and girls feel unable to report rape and violence against them. That must change, as well. We need to address the culture of misogyny, sexism and predation.
I will highlight specific issues where Refuge is calling for change. The first is the need for sustainable funding for specialist gender-based violence services, including accommodation-based and community-based domestic abuse services. Not everyone will go to the police, but more women are likely to go to those specialist services.
The second issue is on tech abuse. I know that the Online Safety Bill is due to be discussed. I hope that Members will speak out in those debates in favour of making women safer. If the Bill could require Ofcom to develop a violence against women and girls code of practice, that would be a huge step forward.
The third issue is about the cost of living, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South. Refuge is calling for the creation of an emergency domestic abuse fund, because perpetrators are taking advantage of the cost of living crisis to increase their economic abuse and control. It will be worse than ever before this winter.
Fourthly, Refuge is calling for all criminal justice practitioners, including the police, to be required to participate in in-depth training on domestic abuse. That happens in some areas, but not all; it is a postcode lottery. I would also add a requirement for the police to give back phones to rape victims after they have gathered the necessary evidence from them. I know of many women who have gone in and reported a rape but then had their phone taken and kept for months and months, which just adds to the abuse that they have suffered.
Moving on to the international action that we can take, I attended the PSVI conference. I declare that I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on PSVI and a member of the APPG on domestic violence and abuse. I am glad that the conference was held this week. It really put the international spotlight, from so many countries, on this issue. The scale of the issue—the number of women and girls who are suffering sexual violence, who are survivors and who are going through this right now—is extraordinary.
I heard about the devastating effects from women from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, Colombia and Bosnia—this is happening all over the world. They all said: “No more words only. No more speeches”—ironically, in speeches—and they were quite right: we now need actions. We need an increase in humanitarian relief funding for action on sexual and gender-based violence. Currently, that is at less than 1% of humanitarian relief. We need to increase funding to stop war in the first place—through the conflict prevention fund—but there have been enormous cuts, including of 60% to Somalia and 90% to Africa’s Sahel region. We cannot cut the aid budget and still expect that conflict prevention will continue, because it will not. We have to back up our words on sexual violence by backing our peacebuilding work. I hope to hear from the Minister what he will do now so that all women and girls, wherever they live, are safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
Violence against women and girls is a problem not just for women and girls. Every woman or girl who feels scared to walk down a street, get on a bus, go on a date, go to school or college, or get in a car with a man she works with is a daughter, sister, mother, wife, partner or friend of a man or a boy. It is not unreasonable to believe that half the population have exactly the same right to take such things for granted as the other half.
When the Government launched the multimillion-pound national broadcast media campaign Enough, we said that violence against women and girls should become as unacceptable as driving without a seatbelt. Many years ago, when seatbelt laws were first introduced, people said that it would never become engrained, no one would do it and people would not change. Those same people would say that violence against women and girls is inevitable and that we should stay at home, protect ourselves, not wear high heels, not go on the internet to look for dates, be more careful, not enjoy ourselves and definitely not get drunk at a festival. Those people were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
This Government have driven a sustained focus on bearing down on the awful crimes of rape and domestic abuse. This Government have increased funding to projects all across the country to increase the safety of women and girls on the streets, in the night-time economy and in their home. This Government have passed new laws to keep sex offenders and rapists in prison for longer. We have outlawed many forms of the worst types of violence that women and girls suffer, such as coercive and controlling behaviour. We passed new laws to toughen the measures to be taken against stalking.
There is of course a lot more to do. A lot of that work was done in response to the violence against women and girls strategy. Many actions are outstanding across the whole system—not just for the Home Office and Justice but for frontline health professionals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said so eloquently.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am afraid that I have a lot to say, so I will not on this occasion.
In my constituency, we have benefited from tangible differences, thanks to this Government, with more than £400,000 in funding for the community on the Greenlands estate. I thank my friend Councillor Emma Marshall for all her fantastic work for the residents near the Woodrow centre, and of Ombersley Close and Rushock Close, working with our local police and crime commissioner, John Campion. She said that the funding has made people feel safer, and I have heard it myself when talking to residents in Woodrow and Greenlands.
I have been privileged to work with victims of spiking and those who campaign for them. We need to do more. I ask the Minister, through the good offices of his colleagues on the Treasury Bench, to speak to the Home Office and ask them to complete their review of the laws around spiking. That review was promised. There is an argument that we need a new offence, and I would like to see the results of the work that the Home Office policy officials are doing.
I will close my comments by saying that when we talk about women and girls, we must be clear about what we are discussing. I have a science background: definitions and language matter. We must be precise in our terminology. We do not serve the needs of those who wish to change gender or have a different gender identity by forgetting all about or ignoring the needs of biological females—adult females and children, girls, who are female children.
We have the privilege to stand up in this place and talk about these issues. There are many outside this Chamber who are looking to us to provide clarity. We have a duty to keep our citizens safe when they flee danger, when they flee abusive, predatory men and when they are fearing for their lives in their homes and need to reach a place of safety.
The hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) mentioned Karen Ingala Smith and her book “Defending Women’s Spaces”. She speaks with the benefit of her decades of experience, campaigning for and supporting women who are victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault. She says many women only feel comfortable talking about the devastating and intimate details of male violence in a safe environment. A safe environment means women-only. We can look to the guidance issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and make sure that that guidance goes to all those providing services to keep women and girls safe.
In Chelmsford, we were very grateful to receive more than £500,000 from the Government’s safer streets fund. I thank Roger Hirst, our police, fire and crime commissioner, for his leadership. The Bunny Walks is a network of green footpaths that weave through Chelmsford, connecting homes, the university and the city centre, but the footpaths were overgrown, the lighting was terrible, drug dealers were frequently spotted in the undergrowth, and women, children and families felt unsafe. Now, the overgrowth has been cut back, lighting and CCTV cameras have been installed, and the paths are busy again because safety has returned. But there is so much more to be done.
The Everyone’s Invited campaign, which went viral early last year, had shocking revelations of the abuse suffered by girls in our schools. As Children’s Minister at the time, I met the campaigners and we promised to shift the dial, so it is welcome news that the Online Safety Bill will come to Parliament next week, with children at its heart. The measures to protect children from online content that promotes self-harm and anorexia need to be implemented urgently, as do measures to prevent children from accessing online pornography.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) said, the VAWG strategy has done many great things, but I was really concerned to hear recently of two rape cases, one of a 14-year-old and the other of a 16-year-old, where the victims felt that if they went to the police, their stories would be smeared all over social media and they would not get justice. I have raised that with Essex police, because we must do more to support girls who have been victims of rape and help them to get justice.
In Essex, the number of rape cases prosecuted has risen from just 22 cases three years ago to 70 last year. That is out of more than 2,500 reported. The proportion of cases taken to court is far too low. One major issue is the huge delays. Victims sometimes have to wait for two years, maybe even longer, and the waiting list for Essex courts is more than double what it was pre-covid. It is absolutely vital that these court delays are stopped.
I, too, attended this week’s conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. As Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, reminded us so bravely, a child aged as young as four years old was raped by soldiers in Ukraine. From Ukraine to Ethiopia and so many other countries around the world, rape is being used systematically as a weapon of war.
During the conference, the Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege also came to Parliament to speak to MPs and Lords. He reminded us that we must not sacrifice justice on the altar of peace, because without justice, the peace will not last. I hope the conference does make a lasting difference to ending impunity and enabling survivors to get justice.
Women and girls who have been raped also need access to healthcare. Rape is the cruellest of crimes, but forcing the woman who has been raped to have no choice but to carry the child of her rapist is also incredible cruelty. All too often in conflict-affected areas and humanitarian situations, a woman who has been raped has no choice, and no health support. Dr Mukwege said that if a woman can access health support in his country within 72 hours of that rape, they can have treatment to prevent them from getting AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, and can take the morning after prophylactic, but all too often supplies are not available.
The UK is one of the few countries that helped to fund access to contraception and women’s health clinics from its development budget. During my time as Minister for Africa, I visited 15 African countries and also visited many women’s health clinics. Many of the women I spoke to were in loving relationships and the clinics were giving women the chance to choose whether they brought another child into their family. I heard at first hand from women and men about how having that choice was life-changing not just for the woman but the family and the entire community, but it is even more important that we get support to the woman who has been raped.
In October I visited Afar, the neighbouring province to Tigray in Ethiopia. Many women in Afar were raped when the conflict spilled out of Tigray earlier this year. At the hospital, I saw the clinic that the UK had quietly funded. That clinic offered abortions to the women who had been raped in that war. The lead doctor at the hospital told me the service was vital.
There have been huge cuts in our development budget. So much of our overseas budget is being spent here in the UK, so it is devastating to think that around the world, in some of the poorest countries, the doors to women’s health clinics are shutting. Across the world, women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health are being rowed back. Roe v. Wade is just one example in one of many countries. We will not tackle violence against women and girls without also making sure that we stand firm in defending a woman’s right to health.
I have the honour to serve on both the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee. For the best part of 20 years before coming here I was a criminal defence solicitor—a witness to the depravity of male violence against women in all its forms—so I shall confine my remarks to the criminal justice system.
There is always a temptation to sugar-coat some of the figures, but we should not do that; we should be honest. The charge rate for rape in this country is a national scandal—a national disgrace. It is 1.7%, so when we talk about conviction rates we are talking about 68% of 1.7%. In the year ending March 2022, the police recorded the highest annual number of rape offences ever: 70,330. Charges were brought in just 2,223 cases, meaning that only one in 100 rapes recorded by the police in 2021 resulted in a charge, let alone a conviction. How can that be? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said earlier, for that to be anywhere near correct we would have to state that 99% of cases were simply untrue, which is nonsense. We have to face up to the reality that we have to have a system that delivers more charges to put more people before the court and properly prosecute and take seriously these incredibly serious matters.
But it gets even worse than that; it is not simply about rape convictions. This week the Home Affairs Committee heard from Professor Alexis Jay, who was the author of an independent report into child sexual abuse involving scandals in various places. The inquiry cost £187 million and took seven years to come to its conclusions. Professor Jay said that agencies such as the police had reduced the priority placed on investigating child sexual abuse, and that the focus had gone to other important areas. We have got to a situation where a report has been required and the situation is worse than when it started. Professor Jay went on to say that there has been a general view—this is now; not seven years ago—that children in care were not worthy of protection, especially girls. That is now. So we have no cases going through.
In terms of other offences of violence, we are not simply talking about rape here. The prosecution rates for other offences of harassment and the like are just as dire as the ones that we see for rape. We therefore get to some fundamental questions about what we are as a country and what the criminal justice system exists for. A factor that was very clear to me during my time in private practice was that if somebody was suffering from mental health problems, addiction or homelessness, there was not a chance that their case would be referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution. They were viewed to be unworthy and unreliable with their evidence. Our system is as bad as I have described: the more vulnerable a victim someone is, the less chance they will have to access not only justice within the criminal justice system, but support and counselling services. It is non-existent.
Opposition Members and Government Members have made some very valid points on the fact that there is no housing, as is the case in my area. Victims of domestic violence are stuck in the house—there is nowhere for them to go. In my area, there are limited refuge services. There is no safe space for women to go. How have we got to this situation?
In terms of practical solutions, we have a criminal justice system. This is unfair on the Minister, in a sense—it should be a Minister from the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice answering this debate—but we have to make these points very clear. We have to get to the heart of the matter. The relationship between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service has to be straight- forward.
If a woman comes in and makes an allegation that somebody has done an appalling act to her, they should be charged with that offence. It is not for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, in my view, to decide what is right and what is or is not a proper allegation. That person should be put before the court and prosecuted. If they are not, we are creating a system where people are being told that they are untruthful before even entering the system. I can only speak from looking at this myself. Why would someone want to put themselves through this system, when the person will be months on bail and years going through the court system, and it is only 1.7% of the people who actually do the offence in the first place who even get to that point? It is a scandal of prolific proportions and it is getting worse and worse.
There are wider cultural questions but, putting it bluntly, we have to take this seriously. We have to make sure that young girls are not scared to go out in Bury or other areas on a Saturday night. If they contact the police, people need to be charged, held to account and sent to prison. Unless that happens, men will continue to act in this barbaric way against women and we as a country will continue to hang our head in shame at the situation we are in.
It is a pleasure to follow the speech that the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) has just given. I congratulate the hon. Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing this very important debate. It has become somewhat of a sad and serious tradition to mark the international day for the elimination of violence against women and girls in this place. I have been proud to speak in many of these debates.
The hon. Member for Bristol South led off the debate powerfully and thoroughly. She started with an excellent point on the decision to host the World cup in Qatar, particularly as it runs over the 16 days of action. It is a shame that women and girls are not safe to walk their own streets.
The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke powerfully about the fact that this violence is carried out by male perpetrators. Every day, women take decisions to affect their own safety. The hon. Lady said she would like to see more men in this debate and in general in these debates, and I agree.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the Members present today are consistent and proud supporters of the movement. The hon. Gentleman—the hon. Member for Westminster Hall, as I like to call him—spoke of the different ways in which perpetrators target their victims and, indeed, the persecution of Christian women and children, an issue he does a huge amount of work on.
The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke of her middle-class privilege, but I think it is fair to say that it is all of our middle-class privilege, rather than just hers. She was so right to say that all victims are not equal.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) spoke of a local police officer who told her that offences are up 76%. She rightly made the point that such horrendous stats are essentially the tip of the iceberg, with many women unwilling or, indeed, unable to report their abuse.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) set out his impressive bona fides as a very strong campaigner in this area. He added a very welcome international perspective to proceedings; some of his comments on the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict were particularly powerful.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) made the good point that, as she grew up, she hoped that the world would get better, but it is in fact less safe for her daughters walking the street. She spoke of her local Reclaim the Night march; I have attended my local Reclaim the Night march as well, but I was unable to attend this year as, sadly, it was on Tuesday of this week.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) was absolutely right to lay into the victim-blaming culture and to lay out the vast improvements in abuse legislation on both sides of the border but, as we have heard, all the legislation is for nothing without proper funding and enforcement.
The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) highlighted the Everyone’s Invited campaign, which works in schools. When I started working on the issue, I found the stats about abuse and violence against girls in schools to be the most shocking of all.
Last, the hon. Member for Bury North finished with a powerful speech focusing on enforcement and the scandalous levels of charging and conviction. We can all agree that that is an issue on both sides of the border; there is no politics to be had on that particular issue.
As others have said, there is an issue with the culture these days in social media. The management and ownership of certain social media companies is consuming a great deal of attention at the moment and I am sick to the back teeth of multibillion pound international companies hiding behind the curtain of free speech when we talk about online harms and the treatment of women and girls. Their version of free speech is the kind where rape threats and stalking are treated as minor misdemeanours, while posts about breastfeeding are deleted and users banned. The rampant misogyny that is allowed to spread almost entirely unchecked online is only getting worse since the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk. It would be wrong to single out Elon Musk and his anti-woke agenda; all the social media companies are failing abysmally at sniffing out misogyny and are utterly disastrous at stamping it out. Together with the historically unprecedented ease with which young men and boys are able to access pornography—often violent pornography, as we have heard—we are seeing an utterly toxic environment unleashed on deeply impressionable minds.
At this point, the Online Safety Bill looks likely to fall short of forcing the media giants to accept some responsibility for the bile and abuse hosted on their servers and from which, in one form or another, they improve their profit margins. If we want to change, build a better society and provide safety for women and girls, we cannot rely on the social media companies to challenge things. It falls to us as individuals, and as a society, to do things for ourselves—that is why campaigns such as White Ribbon UK are so important. Since being introduced to White Ribbon in late 2015, I have been proud to support the campaign; indeed, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on White Ribbon UK. It has been a journey of discovery for me, going from what I imagine is the case for most men—an awareness of the cruelty and sadism of which others are capable, without looking too deeply at the reasons and complexities—to wanting to drive change forward in my own community and across the country through my work in Westminster.
I am proud to be a White Ribbon ambassador, along with thousands of men across Scotland and the UK. To support the campaign, we pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. It is on the condoning and remaining silent where we can make real change. We will all have experienced behaviour or language from men whom we encounter that runs contrary to values of respect and dignity toward women. Too often, those behaviours are not challenged; they are put down as banter or old-fashioned, and left to fester.
I was pleased to host a coffee morning on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, bringing together those working to support survivors and community groups that work with men and boys in those communities. We were fortunate to hear from both Renfrewshire Women’s Aid and Jubilee House, a charity serving Renfrewshire and beyond, which I was lucky enough to visit recently. Its focus is on empowering families to live fulfilled lives, free from abuse, and pretty much anything that empowers women to live their best lives. I met Fiona from Jubilee House, who shared some of the great holistic support provided by the charity and emphasised the crucial importance of education and supporting women and children to recover and get on living once the initial emergency support has been provided.
Some of the facts and stories were, as is unfortunately always the case at such events, utterly shocking. Violence against women and girls costs the Scottish Government alone £2.6 billion a year. Up to 10% of women will be victims of domestic violence in any given year, and, as we all know, more than 80% of domestic abuse incidents involve men abusing women. Marianne from Women’s Aid highlighted the financial challenges faced by women who are affected by domestic abuse, and told us of the new Cost of Leaving campaign. In the light of the cost of living crisis, the need to highlight such challenges has never been more urgent.
Despite the horrific stats and narrative, that event was absolutely worth organising, and it is something that I want to do annually—well, for as long as I am in this place.
Hopefully for a long time!
I know there is subtext to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
I want to ensure that organisations in my constituency know that support and help is there for them if and when they want to start making change among the people they speak to daily. Young men have dozens of interactions with friends and family every day, and those friends and family members will have hundreds more. Some of those conversations will be about women and girls, and of those, some will perpetrate disrespect and disregard for the rights of women and girls. If we can turn just a fraction of those conversations into something to be challenged or objected to, we can make a start—just a start—on nipping the attitudes in the bud before they are allowed to fester and develop into something more serious five, 10, 15 or 20 years down the line. That does not mean letting grown men off the hook, but helping a developing mind along the right path is light-years easier than attempting to put the genie back in the bottle in adulthood.
To conclude, I welcome the UK Government’s progress on ratification of the Istanbul convention, on which I have campaigned on for many years—indeed, an SNP colleague passed legislation on it—but the previous Secretary of State had reservations about ratifying it. I urge the Minister to speak to the Home Secretary and revisit the decision to opt out of articles 44 and 59, because migrants deserve the same protection as everyone else.
Despite the progress that has been made in removing the taboo around domestic abuse, to some extent it is still society’s dirty little secret. The attitudes of misogyny and bigotry that ultimately lead down a path of gender-based violence are still there and are, in some cases, being allowed to grow unchecked. It is incumbent on us all, not just as MPs but as human beings, friends, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, to bring that dirty secret out into the open and ensure that all of us—men and women—are fully aware of the carnage and horror that some of our ilk wreak on women and girls, because challenging those behaviours means knowing about them.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Elliot. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for securing this really important debate.
Labour believes that we will never have justice, or achieve a collective potential, until women and girls everywhere can live their lives free from violence. As women, we know that fear of violence can shape every single part of our lives, holding us back in many ways, and that the aftermath of violence has a lifelong impact. In the UK, violence against women and girls is far from being ended. Today, we remember in particular Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard and the tens of thousands of women who are assaulted, abused, raped or murdered by men in this country every single year.
We are going backwards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South rightly said, a woman is killed every three days in this country. Only 1.5% of rapes now result in a criminal charge—a huge decline since 2015. Even now, nine police services have failed to provide any specific training to their officers on how to handle domestic abuse. I know, because I shadow him, that the Minister has responsibility for international rather than domestic policy, but I hope he will join me in calling that out and acknowledging that those facts are shameful.
I am in the Chamber as a shadow Foreign Minister, so I hope Members will understand that most of my speech will be on the international action that is necessary, but clearly the UK has an enormous problem within our own borders and the Government have much work to do to make up for those failings.
In my speeches, I always like to try to give voice to those who do not have my privilege, so I want to mention a few testimonies from the conflict in Ethiopia. As we support the peace process there, we have to ensure that accountability is paramount. A Tigrayan mum who reported that she was raped by Eritrean soldiers said:
“Five of them raped me in front of my children…They used an iron rod…to burn me. They inserted pieces of metal in my womb...Then they left me on the street.”
Another Tigrayan mum of two, who reported rape by 10 regional militia members while trying to flee to conflict, was told:
“If you were male we would kill you, but girls can make Amhara babies.”
These are the words said to a 14-year-old girl, who reported being raped, along with her mother, by Tigrayan forces:
“Our families were raped and now it is our turn to rape you.”
The suffering and trauma that those women experienced and the misogyny driving the atrocities is clear. We need a systematic response, backed by consistent resources, and we need to keep working to break down gender inequality and the attitudes that fuel male violence.
As we have heard, this week the Government hosted the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative conference. I was there, and I heard consensus about the need for action and for spaces where survivors can raise their voices safely. Sadly, the conference was marred by the decision to include a speaker regarded by many survivors as complicit in atrocities, including sexual violence, during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I have to ask why no survivors of sexual violence in the conflict in Ethiopia were enabled to speak. I hope we can hear about how lessons will be learned, because sadly the work of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff and UK-funded non-governmental organisations has been undermined and that work can be so powerful.
We support legal advice for survivors and provide resources to help women build their strength to fight for political change in their countries. I was grateful to hear directly from African women survivors about what they need from the UK. They were very clear that we need to empower local leaders on programme design and delivery, because they can use UK funding most effectively.
We need to continue the UK’s work on tackling stigma and empowering women within militaries, the police and judiciaries. The need for UK partnership goes way beyond specialist programmes, because we know that poverty and inequality often create the conditions for women to be violently abused and denied justice. When girls are out of education or there is a crisis such as the devastating drought in the horn of Africa, they are much more vulnerable to the abuse of child marriage. Once a girl is in that position, further violence, including rape and domestic abuse, becomes far more likely, and freedom and justice are much harder to obtain.
Nala was 12 when conflict forced her family to flee their home. Her father was killed and the family ran out of food. Out of desperation, her mother married her to an adult man who raped and abused her, and abandoned her when she became pregnant. In many of the countries where the most appalling atrocities against women and girls are happening, Governments are weighed down by unsustainable debt and undermined by climate disasters. Very few have the resources to reform their legal systems or provide protection, support and justice for survivors. Many Governments are struggling to keep the lights on and the teachers paid.
Our development assistance has been slashed. The aid that remains is much less focused on the poorest countries. That does not help vulnerable women and girls in these countries. The proportion of UK bilateral aid going to low-income countries has fallen by eight percentage points in the last five years. It is now barely above 50%. That does not even take into consideration the massive share of our aid being spent wastefully by the Home Office here in the UK.
I strongly welcome the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative strategy, but how will it have its intended effect when resources are dwindling? Action to tackle the global food crisis, give girls access to education and healthcare, and build peace and resilience against climate change all helps in our fight against male violence, but we can only offer warm words if the money gets spent by the Home Office.
We also need to ensure that there are sanctions. The UK strategy states:
“We will seek to use…UK sanctions regimes to deter … perpetrators”.
As we know, there will not be any deterrent unless sanctions are actually used, but the Government have not even mirrored sanctions on the central reserve police in Sudan, who were sanctioned by the US because their officers allegedly raped women protestors. As I have said, there have been so many reports of horrifying sexual violence against women, children and men by Eritrean forces involved in the conflict in Tigray, but recent Eritrea sanctions have not been mirrored either. I hope that we will see leadership on sanctions designation in the coming days, as the Foreign Secretary has said.
I think many of us agree that the Government’s record on justice for women in the UK is, frankly, dire. Despite all the chaos of the past months and the damage done to the UK’s international reputation, we should be proud of the work that our officials do to support women and girls around the world. The truth is that we need to do more of it. If the Government focused on long-term partnerships and aid delivery, we could have a much better impact.
All women and girls deserve to be safe from violence. All survivors deserve justice. We must amplify survivors’ voices and build women’s power. In partnership, we can break down the inequalities and misogyny that drive violence against girls and women everywhere. I hope that the Minister will set out how the Government plan to do just that.
I am glad to be able to respond to this powerful and forthright debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for calling the debate and leading off. I should say that this subject sits in the portfolio of the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), but I am pleased to be here in his place. I am grateful for Members’ contributions, and I will try to cover them all and give some assurance about the Government’s policy.
The hon. Member for Bristol South laid out in quite stark terms the landscape of inequality and risk that women and girls face with regard to gender-based violence. She kicked off with remarks about Qatar and put the subject in the context of Ukraine, but she also focused on her constituency and Bristol. That was quite an alarming picture. She made very good points about the need for specialist rape courts, for particularly well-qualified individuals to be working in our police forces, and for a data-driven response to that challenge. I commit to her that I shall gently ask one of my fellow Ministers, perhaps from the Ministry of Justice or the Home Department, to write to her with an update on how we are getting on in relation to specific expertise in dealing with rape cases in our courts system. I was very grateful that she raised that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was frank in her very stark assessment of how poorly we are doing when it comes to the statistical feedback. She laid down a very forthright and welcome challenge to the Government, and she drew attention to the very bad experience of our own colleagues in conducting their lives as female MPs. She mentioned the very dignified and powerful speech delivered to us and all colleagues by Madam Zelenska on Monday and put that in the context of our efforts in Ukraine.
I am glad that my hon. Friend commended our PSVI conference, but she also reflected that we need to keep our own house in order, and we accept that challenge. Our policy should not be just words, and she made the case for proper therapeutic care in the NHS and proper protections for rape victims in prisons. Again, I will ask my colleague in the Ministry of Justice to write to her with an update about the situation regarding proper protections in prisons. I will also ask, from the NHS side, for an update on the therapeutic care pathway for rape victims. I will be very pleased to do that.
My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke movingly about the international context with regard to victims of gender-based violence and about kidnap in Nigeria and the Yazidis in Iraq. Of course, we are keenly aware of the ravages of Islamic State in Nigeria. We raise that on a very frequent basis with the Government of Nigeria, and we will continue to do so. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those cases here today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) referred very forthrightly and movingly to the Killed Women organisation. I am grateful to her for raising that. I was glad that she commended the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, but she quite rightly said that we must get our own house in order, and the Government certainly accept that challenge.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) made a very valid point about the confidentiality of counselling notes in the handling of rape cases, which is by necessity extremely sensitive. I will ask my colleague in the Ministry of Justice to write with an update on our policy with regard to confidentiality in the handling of counselling notes, because the hon. Lady made it very clear that that is a key component of successful prosecution of these cases. She put it in a very well rounded way when she said that violence against women and girls cannot be ended by the victims. I thought that that was a very good way of seeing it, and she made a good point. We all join her in calling for holistic change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) gave us some interesting reflections about the genesis of the PSVI conference and programme. We are grateful for his long-standing involvement in that and his keen advocacy of it still, some 10 years later. I agree with him that it was an achievement of true statecraft, and it continues to be. I think that those who visited the conference on Monday saw the energy, resource and priority that the Government afford this work, but of course that will only be as good as our ability to maintain the momentum, commitment and political priority. Of course, it is a priority, and that can be seen in our international development strategy.
My hon. Friend asked me how much resource was going to the Ukraine fund specifically. I can tell him that it is £10 million, and that will be routed through Ukrainian organisations on the ground. They will be best placed to afford that assistance to our Ukrainian allies, who are heroically resisting outrageous Russian aggression.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) also reflected on the PSVI conference. She made some quite critical remarks. I accept those in the spirit in which they were intended. I should confirm to her that our bilateral violence against women and girls spend is £27.6 million annually, and it remains a major priority. That is why we have another commitment, of £12.5 million, over the next three years. It is front and centre in our development strategy, as is only right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) challenged the Home Office to update her on spiking laws. That is a very serious issue, and I commit to asking my colleague in the Home Department for an update. We all recognise those sorts of cases in our own constituencies, and I am pleased to take action on that.
I was most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for reflecting on the Bunny Walks initiative in her constituency, which is a powerful example of community action. She also made a commendable point about the PSVI conference: there can be no peace without justice. She spoke movingly about the valuable time she spent in Africa, and I was pleased that she referred to her visit to Ethiopia in October. I think that all colleagues will commend and thank her for her energy while in her ministerial role, and for her continued interest in these issues from the Back Benches. We are most grateful for her continued advocacy.
I join the Minister in his comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), but I will not let him gloss over what she said about women’s right to reproductive health, which is a crucial part of preventing violence against women and girls. Will he join me in reaffirming the Government’s position on women’s right to access abortion, and in regretting the fact that, in some countries, abortion is still not available when it should be?
I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in those remarks. We are of one view, and I am very grateful for her intervention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) made a strident and powerful speech, based on intimate personal experience in his own constituency, about the low prosecution rate in rape cases. I will ask my colleague in the Ministry of Justice to write with an update on that. My hon. Friend painted a picture, based on intimate personal knowledge, of a derisory state of affairs. I will seek an update for him.
I am grateful for the powerful contribution of the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown). I join her in calling out the shocking impact of gender-based violence on women and girls, and I am grateful to her for bringing to the attention of colleagues the powerful testimony of survivors in Ethiopia. She asked, validly, why there were no Ethiopian survivors at the conference on Monday. We will take that home. She rightly pointed out some other lessons that we should learn from the conference about the handling of the experiences of survivors. I can confirm that they are being learned in advance of the next conference. She spoke about empowering women around the world. I assure her that gender-based violence will remain a core priority of the Government, and that we will seek to reflect that in our sanctions policy.
We were delighted that, subsequent to the conference, 54 states endorsed the political declaration, which sends a powerful sign of international resolve. We thought that that was important. That is backed up by our new three-year strategy and £12.5 million of new funding. More than £5 million will go to the Global Survivors Fund, founded by Dr Mukwege and Nadia Murad. We are putting our money where our mouth is. This work has resource and significant political energy. I again thank colleagues for their contributions to today’s powerful debate.
I thank the Minister for agreeing to take all the issues that have been raised today, particularly my request on the recording of sex data and other issues, to colleagues across Government, including those in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and in women and equalities roles. I thank both the other Front Benchers for their contributions, and I thank everybody for a good, wide-ranging debate.
We are united across parties. There is more to do. I think we all agree that we must get our own house in order, as well as support initiatives across the world, particularly on peacebuilding and women’s reproductive rights. I think we are also united in wanting to make our country and the world a safer place for the women and girls who follow us. In that vein, we shall persist, and hopefully we will have a good debate for White Ribbon Day—perhaps in the main Chamber, in Government time —next year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.