A shocking series of murders of women in public places, combined with rising levels of domestic violence and a wave of reports of sexual harassment in schools and colleges, have set alarm bells ringing among all those concerned with the safety of women and girls. Protecting women from male violence, including domestic and sexual violence, has long been among feminists’ main goals – along with political rights and economic independence. Yet half a century after the first UK women’s refuge was established in 1971, progress in this and other areas has gone into sharp reverse.
The Guardian has reported extensively on the crisis surrounding the policing and prosecution of rape and other sexual offences. A combination of factors, with a flawed approach to complainants’ personal data high on the list, along with a more general deterioration in the court system due to cuts, has produced a situation in which the vast majority of complaints never get to court. In the year to the end of March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales, leading to just 2,102 prosecutions. In light of such figures, the delayed appearance of a long-promised “rape review” examining how allegations are dealt with is not only a failure on the part of government, but a disgrace.
Similarly, the situation with regard to domestic violence is extremely concerning, with evidence suggesting that the pandemic has made the position of many vulnerable women significantly worse and the increasing role of technology a particular problem. The recent creation of a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, and measures broadening the definition of domestic abuse, were positive steps. But rules preventing migrant women from accessing public funds, for example to fund refuge places, mean that they can continue to be abused with impunity.
Last week’s Queen’s speech announced a victims bill, expected to specify service provision for domestic abuse victims, and an online safety bill, which will address (among other issues) misogynist abuse on social media platforms and online pornography. But the lack of crime and justice announcements prompted Labour to issue its own proposals for new laws – a kind of shadow green paper – including the creation of a new street harassment offence, as has been introduced in France, longer sentences for rapists, and a set of indicators by which progress can be measured.
As an assertion of Labour’s commitment to tackle these interconnected issues, the document is very welcome. The proposal to criminalise street harassment is a sound one, as are plans to roll out improved training in the criminal justice system, and develop violence against women as a specialism for prosecutors and in the court system.
The emphasis on sentencing is less useful, although a seven-year minimum sentence for rape is worth discussing. For as long as the vast majority of reports of sexual offences are progressing no further than the police, meaning that only a tiny proportion of rapists ever face justice, this must be the focus for reformers in this area. For the feminist criminal justice sector, the failure of a judicial review aimed at altering the way that the Crown Prosecution Service handles rape cases was a bitter disappointment. The current situation, with women justifiably alarmed both by levels of crime and the way such crimes are dealt with, is intolerable. On this central point, the government’s critics are right. Ministers should pay attention.