Readers of last week’s edition of the Barnsley Chronicle will have seen the story of Darfield Councillor Pauline Markham, the victim of a despicable and cowardly attack in a local park, simply for serving the public to the best of her ability. In her own words she summed up the injustice, “I was simply a woman who was walking her dog.”
Sadly, Pauline’s story is part of a much wider issue – our collective failure to take violence against women and girls seriously. We’ve seen it locally in the rising instances of girls’ drinks being spiked on nights out, soaring cases of stalking in the last year; and the devastating statistic that 86% of women aged 18-24 in the UK have been sexually harassed.
What is the devastating consequence of this contempt? Horrifying murders of women by violent men, most notably the brutal killing of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens. A case that resonated so powerfully up and down the country not because of its unique cruelty, but because so many women live with the fear that the same could happen to them.
I’ve heard from countless conversations locally just how endemic the issue of violence against women and girls is. From constituents sharing their first-hand accounts of assaults to residents who worry that it is no longer safe for their daughters and granddaughters to walk the streets they call home. It is utterly shameful, and an indictment of our society, that for many women this is their daily experience.
Women shouldn’t have to live like this, and I think men can play their part to ensure they don’t. The end can begin with men taking responsibility for their own behaviour and the behaviour of their mates and colleagues. Together we can create a culture where abuse isn’t acceptable, isn’t tolerated and isn’t welcome. That means calling out sexist jokes, catcalls and unacceptable comments too often shrugged off. Reporting harassment wherever it rears its ugly head. Stepping up. Speaking out. Doing the right thing. It’s why I’m backing the White Ribbon campaign, supporting 16 days of concerted action to educate blokes on the issue. This isn’t a battle of the sexes. This is about us standing with women, shoulder to shoulder, and raising our voices in solidarity.
While we can do our bit locally, we need a systematic overhaul on a national level too. I’ve raised the issue in Parliament, I’ve called for longer sentences for serial stalkers and pushed for gender-based violence education in schools.
This Conservative government is letting women down. Police recorded domestic abuse-related incidents and reports of rape have skyrocketed in the last five years, yet prosecution is at an all-time low. I’m proud that the Labour Party have the Violence Against Women Green Paper, if implemented in full we will see proper reform. It’ll make misogyny a hate crime, increase the minimum sentence for rape and stalking, and introduce a new law on street harassment. The days of a government introducing legislation that does more to protect statues than rape victims will be a thing of the past.
The spectre of violence against women and girls, understandably, leaves many feeling despondent. But I want to leave you with hope. I recently had the honour of presenting Claire Throssell with the proud of Barnsley Special Recognition Award, in acknowledgement of her tireless work tackling domestic violence and standing up for women. While ever there are inspirational women like Claire leading the way in this fight, we can all be hopeful that change is possible.