What a week to be a woman

Phot by Katherine Hanlon from unsplash

I’ve been involved with International Women’s Day (8 March) for over thirty years. I’ve participated in events, organised activities, promoted them and encouraged other women to engage. Certain questions are often asked, such as “When is it International Men’s Day?” – the polite answer is 19 November, however my usual answer is “the other 364 days of the year”. The other question increasingly posed is “Do we still need International Women’s Day?”

Many organisations in the UK organised digital activities in a Covid-safe way this year, but as we know other events began to overshadow these. I have previously written about the impact of Covid-19 on women in the UK.

It has been nearly a year since the initial lockdown began and the impact of Covid has worsened for women in the UK. This year, 8 March was also the first day that most pupils went back to school. ‘Liberation Day’ according to a friend of mine, a single parent who is home-schooling whilst working from home.

Many astute organisations used International Women’s Day to make their case. Scottish Widows used some clever advertising to illustrate the Gender Pension Gap. This is the difference between the average female and male savings for retirement. In 2020 this was an average of £100,000.

The next reports to hit the press were the YouGov poll on sexual assault and sexual harassment and a survey from UN Women UK. The survey illustrated that 97% of young women aged 18-24 said they had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. The only surprise for most women was that the figures weren’t higher.

The YouGov survey showed that 96% of respondents did not report incidents, with 45% saying it would not change anything. This is hardly a vote of confidence in UK authorities and their systems to deal with sexual harassment.

At the same time this was happening, two other events were unfolding. One was the Oprah Winfrey interview with the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. I have to admit to being a staunch republican and desperately tried to avoid reading or watching anything about this, but I couldn’t fail to notice the backlash against the Duchess of Sussex, couched in a language of racism and misogyny.

The other unveiling story was Sarah Everard. We all know it could have been any of us – our daughter, our sister, our mother, our granddaughter, our friend, our neighbour, our work colleague, and too often it is. The shock was even greater when a serving police officer was arrested. The Metropolitan Police mission statement is “Making London safe for all the people we serve”.

It’s not surprising that women are angry. In England and Wales the number of rape convictions has fallen to a record low, according to the Crown Prosecution. In England and Wales in 2019-2020, 55,259 rapes were recorded by the Police, but there were only 2,102 protections and 1,439 convictions.

Rape Crisis England and Wales is the umbrella organisation for a network of independent rape crisis centres and it collates the data. It explains the many reasons why women don’t report rape to the police.

These include the feeling of shame and self-blaming, the nature of police and legal interrogations; the lack of belief in and the failure of state organisations to act and respond appropriately are key issues.

Many organisations that work to end violence against women and girls suggest that ‘rape myths’ exist throughout the police and courts system. Home Office figures suggest that rape complainants now have a 1 in 70 chance that that a complaint made to the police will even result in a charge, let alone a conviction. (The Decriminalisation of Rape November 2020)

The heavy-handed response by the Met Police to the vigil, at Clapham Common, for Sarah Everard, was the leading story on Sunday. Peaceful vigils were held in Glasgow, Nottingham and elsewhere. The awful irony of this was not lost; that the murder of a woman by a serving a police officer, ends up with more women being man-handled by the Police. Sunday was also Mothering Sunday.

And to finish this week, possibly one of saddest stories on international mothers. There are nine Yazidi women in the Kurdistan region of Iraq who had to make painful choices. They were captured by terrorists from the Islamic State, enslaved, traded and raped. Some of these women then became pregnant and had children.

They were then separated from their children when the Islamic State collapsed two years ago, and their children were seized from them and taken to an orphanage. However the Yazidi elders had refused to allow the children to join their mothers, when the Caliphate collapsed. At the beginning of March, the nine women and their twelve children were reunited at the Iraq-Syria border, following diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. 

This story of reunification has a bitter ending. The Yazidi leaders will not accept the children and allow them to return with their mothers. In fact the Yazidi spiritual leader has declared these women are now exiled. Eight of the women are now looking to move to Europe or Australia.

Although Yazidi refugees have been granted resettlement in Europe and elsewhere, the children of ISIS fighters are a challenge to many governments, who will not accept them. About thirty more children remain in the orphanage.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was ‘Choose to Challenge’. It has certainly been a challenging year for too many women.

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