Will Labour take real action on violence against women?


By Naomi Care

This week, Yvette Cooper has made the ground-breaking announcement that Labour would introduce a ‘women’s safety officer’. The watchdog’s role would cover FGM, forced marriage and promises a crackdown on revenge porn. Forgive me if I hold my applause.

Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow Home Secretary

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary

Once again, the discussion around safety for women has focused around some of the showier issues. Currently FGM and revenge porn are in vogue for the political elite. If a politician wants to show that they care about women they simply make a statement about the evils of FGM and feel vindicated of their responsibility to actually do anything to support women who have been subject to violence.

Take Gove’s rather pathetic show of sending letters to schools asking them to teach girls about the perils of FGM, forgetting that the majority of girls would have suffered the abuse years before they entered high school. He neatly ignored the fact that any girl speaking out against FGM would need a vast network of support to have any real chance of safely standing up to her abuser. But never mind, I’m sure they appreciated the letter.

And it is this, the need for real change and concrete support, which is missing from the bulk of debates concerning the safety of women. In a society where violence against women is endemic it is impossible to help victims through the criminal system alone.

When change within society is unlikely to occur without a seismic shift in the way that women are portrayed and understood, there is a need to support victims by giving them the psychological and practical help that they desperately need.

It is now commonly accepted that abuse, both as a child or as an adult, is one of the leading causes of depression and mental distress.

  • Abused women are at least three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety disorders than other women. (Source: Women’s Aid)
  • Between 50% and 60% of women mental health service users have experienced domestic violence, and up to 20% will be experiencing current abuse. (Source: Department of Health)
  • 70% women psychiatric in-patients and 80% of those in secure settings have histories of physical or sexual abuse. (Source: Department of Health)

Perhaps, most shockingly, one-third of suicide attempts by women, and half of those by black or ethnic minority women, can be attributed to experiences of domestic abuse.

Given that there is a direct link between violence against women and mental health issues, it would seem that good mental health treatment would be a key component of any debate concerning violence against women. But, it’s strangely absent.

Instead, as mental health services are being cut year on year to the point where beds are no longer available, waiting lists for talking therapies span months and services for young adults are worse than that for adults, the debate circles around the sparkly hot topics that come to encompass all that is violence against women.


Substantive policy, not empty gestures

Today, we celebrate hunting down perpetrators of FGM, regardless if the women wants to report or not. Revenge porn is being given a bigger platform than the fact that two woman a week are murdered by a former or current partner. We live in a world where there are 24 hour support helplines for people who want to quit smoking, while rape victims have one solitary helpline that’s open a few hours a day.

So, I am sorry Yvette Cooper, but I do not see the appointment of a women’s safety officer as a significant gain for women. If Labour want to gain a gold star, then well done, you’ve done it – I’m sure many will be won over by your grand gesture. But if you want to help support the thousands of women who are victims of a myriad of abuses each day, grand gestures won’t cut it. Instead, Labour need to make policy changes in welfare, in health, in law and in education. Let’s see if they’re ready to make the plunge.


One Response to Will Labour take real action on violence against women?

  1. Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

    Excellent piece. “We’re passing this law to send a message” became a bit of a catch phrase of the last labour government – along with a sense that every problem had a simple legislative solution. As you say the problem of violence against women can only be properly addressed through really seeking to shift society at large.